Shadowing Secrets for Premed Students

Eye-opening hospital work experience
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Students after placement in the hospital Becoming a physician takes a big commitment. In addition to earning a four-year degree, you will have four years of medical school followed by three or four years of residency. There may be even more training in the form of a fellowship depending on your specialty.

Training to become a doctor involves a pretty big chunk of time, not to mention money. How to you know if the field is right for you? You may think you know what a doctor does. But where did you get your information?

The Benefit of Shadowing

Most people form their opinion about a career from what they read or heard about the profession. But what you think you know about being a doctor and the reality may be two different things. That’s why shadowing a doctor is such a great idea.

Although shadowing is helpful when deciding any type of career, it can be especially important in medicine. For instance, you may have an idea what a doctor does from your own personal experience or what you saw on television.  But doctors do different things. What your family doctor did, may be quite different from other specialties. In addition, being a physician does not always involve saving lives as television would lead you to believe.

When you shadow a doctor, you see firsthand the day to day responsibilities involved. The experience is not scripted or edited to look more glamourous. You have the opportunity to witness the good and bad about being a doctor, which can help you decide if it is right for you before you spend years in training. Additionally, you may get to learn about specialties you did not know existed.

Finding Opportunities

Once you decide to shadow a doctor, the next step is finding a physician who is willing to let you tag along. You have several options when it comes to locating a doctor to shadow. A good place to start is your school’s academic advisor. If you are in high school, ask your guidance counselor if they can help you find a physician to shadow. For those already in college, speak with your premed advisor.

Another option is to contact a shadowing program. There are various organizations, which arrange shadowing experiences for students in different parts of the world. Fees and specific arrangements often vary by program.

You can also take matters into your hands and contact doctors directly. Contact the volunteer office at a hospital near you and explain the situation. Ask if it is possible to shadow a doctor in a specialty you are interested in.

If you have any other connections, such as family members or friends who work in the medical field, you may also locate a doctor that way. Your family doctor may also have some ideas.   

How to Act

Once you locate a doctor to shadow, it is helpful to know what to expect. Start by dressing professional. You do not want to show up wearing ripped jeans or shorts. Before you start, ask if scrubs are required. If not, consider wearing something comfortable, but neat and professional.

Make sure you are on time and ready for a full day. Leave your cell phone off and be prepared to do a lot of observing. Your experience may vary depending on what setting you do your shadowing. For example, if you are following a doctor on rounds in the hospital, you may be in a fast paced environment where there is not a lot of time for talking. In other instances, such as in family practice, you may have more time to ask questions in between seeing patients.

Be enthusiastic and do not overstep your bounds. You are just there to observe and not step in and talk to patients about their treatment or condition. Always thank the doctor, staff and patients for allowing you to observe.  

Making the Most of the Experience

Shadowing a doctor can be a very positive experience, and you can get a lot out of it. Consider some of the following suggestions to make your shadowing experience as beneficial as possible. 

  • Be open to meeting as many people as possible

In the course of a day, the doctor you are with may interact with other doctors and healthcare workers. Learning what other members of the allied healthcare team do is also beneficial.

  • Observe as much as you can

If you have the chance to observe certain procedures or meetings, take advantage of it. Although you want to see what a typical workday involves, observe the unexpected.

  • Ask questions

The doctor you are with understands you are doing career exploration. Doctors who agree to allow a student to shadow them are probably OK with questions. But be careful when you ask. Pick a time when the doctor is not dealing directly with a patient or a critical situation. 

  • Consider asking what the doctor likes and dislikes best about the job

Ask if they still would become a doctor if they had it to do over again. Although everyone is different, and one doctor’s answers do not represent an entire profession, their answers can give you some insight.

  • Do not interfere with the normal workflow of the day

You do not want to get in the way. If sensitive situations arise, ask if you should step out. Not all patients want a student hanging around watching. Respect a patient’s wish for privacy and do not take it personally.

  • Consider shadowing in more than one setting

Observing doctors in different settings and specialties can give you a broader picture of what a career in medicine is like. Although it may not always be possible, shadowing several doctors may be the most helpful. 

After shadowing a doctor, you may be more excited about pursuing a career in medicine, or you may still have some doubts. It is important not to base your career decision on one shadowing experience. A lot of thought and soul-searching goes into to deciding if a career in medicine is right for you. Keep in mind, shadowing is only one piece of the puzzle.

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