The Pre-Med Student’s Guide to Shadowing a Doctor

Shadowing a doctor and patient

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Shadowing a doctor refers to time spent observing a clinician as they see patients, perform procedures, etc. While you may be familiar with what a doctor does by your personal experience at the doctor’s office, or while being hospitalized, the opportunity to shadow a professional gives you a close-up behind-the-scenes look at the clinical experience. This may include intimate patient interactions and learning about the roles of others who interact with the physician. 

Not all schools require reported shadowing from applicants. However, shadowing experiences can be very unique and worth the time and effort. Shadowing gives a glimpse into the everyday experience of a physician and familiarizes you with the clinic or hospital setting. This experience may differ depending on who you shadow, where you shadow, and when you choose to shadow. Learn tips on finding the right doctor to shadow, what to expect, and how to make the most of your shadowing experience.

Finding a Doctor to Shadow

In preparing for your shadowing experience, the first task is to find the right doctor to shadow. Consider following these preliminary steps:

Do Your Research

Research different specialties that interest you. Have you always been interested in women’s health? Does the idea of a fast-paced, dynamic environment like the emergency room intrigue you? Additionally, look into the different environments where your shadowing experience can take place. For instance, will you be observing in a big, teaching hospital among medical students, residents, and fellows—or in a small community clinic?

Make a Connection

Now that you have become familiar with medical specialties and practice environments, it is time to make the connection with a doctor to shadow. 

Utilize your own resources. Your primary care doctor, professors, or other mentors may help to connect you with someone within your scope of interest. Consider mentor programs, pre-med programs, and pre-health sciences clubs at your university. It is possible that these groups may have connections to several doctors and hospitals in the area who enjoy showing pre-med students around.

You can also try reaching out to a local physician by cold calling the office of interest. In the initial email or phone conversation, begin by introducing yourself, making sure to include your name, major, and the school you attend. Let the person know how you obtained their contact information. Then, explain why you are interested in shadowing them. Try contacting one physician at a time, and do not be afraid to send a kind, follow-up email if you do not receive a response within a week.

Set a Time

Once you are able to connect with the physician, start to brainstorm times that will work best with their schedule. Depending on the setting, and even day, the length of time you spend shadowing the physician can vary. You may plan to shadow for two to three hours at a time for a couple days throughout the week, or even plan to shadow the doctor for a full day on one occasion. Shadowing can take a good chunk of time out of the day, so it might work best with your schedule to plan to shadow over a holiday or summer break. Depending on the institution and patient population, you may need to complete a background check and additional paperwork. 

What to Expect When Shadowing

Think of a shadowing experience as a unique version of a lecture. A typical shadowing experience will involve quite a bit of time observing and listening. You will likely follow the physician around, from room to room, as they see their patients for the day. If the patient agrees, you will get a chance to be in the room during an otherwise private conversation between the patient and the physician. You will likely stand, or sit, just to the periphery so as to not interfere in the interaction between the patient and physician. 

Pay attention to the subtle interactions between the patient and the doctor, like body language and tone. These cues provide important lessons. You might even have a brief moment of interaction with the patient, but this should be prompted by the physician or patient. Although you are present primarily for observation, the physician may engage you during the visit or afterwards to explain the patient’s case. Also, do not be afraid to ask the physician questions, preferably after the patient is gone. 

You will be interacting with various people, including patients and other medical staff, so it is important to dress professionally. The clinic or hospital might have a dress code for volunteers or students who are shadowing. Typically, students who shadow dress in business casual professional attire. Dress pants and a blouse or dress shirt are appropriate. Some students opt to wear ties as well, but a blazer or sport coat is unnecessary. Wear comfortable, closed-toe shoes that will allow you to stand for extended periods of time, as necessary. If you are completely unsure of what to wear on your day of shadowing, it is okay to ask the physician you will be shadowing for some pointers. 

Tips for a Successful Shadowing Experience 

Now that you understand ways to arrange an optimal shadowing experience, and what to expect while shadowing, keep in mind the following four tips for a successful and informative shadowing experience:

Prepare

It is not a bad idea to get familiar with the specialty you will be shadowing before the big day. It might help to look up the physician you will be shadowing for information on the education they obtained to be in their specialty. Your preparation should give you great questions to ask during your shadowing day and will help you to understand the path you might take to follow in their steps.

Take Notes

Leave your phone tucked away and have a notebook handy instead. Between patient visits, jot notes of interesting things you observe or any questions you may want to ask the physician or look into at a later time. You might also want to write a short summary of your shadowing experience at the end of the day, noting who, where, and for how long you shadowed. This might come in useful during your application and interview process.

Ask Questions

Questions, questions, questions! Be inquisitive about what you are observing. The shadowing experience is a learning experience. If you are unsure, or better yet, if you would like to know more, feel free to ask. Physicians usually enjoy teaching, both patients and students. Questions also show you are paying attention and engaged. Just be mindful of the appropriate time to ask them, and don’t interrupt the physician-patient interaction.

Maintain the Relationship

After the experience, it is always appropriate to write a thank you note to the person who gave you an opportunity to learn from them. Make sure to follow up with the physician and consider maintaining a longer-term professional relationship with them. They may be willing to help you find other physicians to shadow, may be a contact for a letter of recommendation, or may be a great resource for ongoing advice as you continue your journey into medicine.

Conclusion

A successful shadowing experience is an exciting step in learning if a career in medicine is right for you. Your time observing and interacting with patients can help give you ideas of what interests you and drives you towards this particular field. It may also steer you away from areas of medicine or practice environments that don’t appeal to you. Shadowing is a fun learning opportunity that will give you a close-up of a particular specialty and the intimate interactions between a patient and a physician that are a foundation to the profession. 

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