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Pre-Med Preparation: The Importance of Physician Shadowing

Created March 22, 2008 by Christian Becker


Physician shadowing, in my opinion, is one of the best extracurricular activities in which a pre-medical student can engage for several reasons:

1. It provides you with clinical exposure and stories to talk about in the admission interview.
2. Shadowing allows you to see what medicine and a physician’s life are like every day.
3. You will quickly discover if medicine is really for you.
4. It’s easy to set up and do.
5. It’s one of those “intangible” (and unofficial) requirements to get into medical school.

For purposes of this discussion, shadowing really boils down to one thing: clinical exposure. If you already have worked as a nurse or medical assistant with ample patient and physician contact and interaction, you really don’t need any shadowing, or at least not much. It’s an easy way to get that important clinical exposure that can make or break your application. 

In essence, if you have not spent some significant time with physicians and patients during your time as a pre-med, how do you really know you want to be a physician? How do you convince the admissions folks that you truly know what it is like to be a physician and involved in patient care? They want to see that you have immersed yourself in clinical settings with real patients.

From my own experience as an applicant just a few years ago, I can emphatically state that I knew that I wanted to be a physician due almost entirely to my shadowing experiences. In addition, I was asked about those experiences in admissions interviews and was able to easily answer the question “Why medicine?”. I was also able to share some of the things I had seen and experienced during my observation time with my interviewers and use them in my personal statement. In a nutshell, shadowing is what cemented my desire to be a physician.

As a student interviewer for my medical school, I cannot over-emphasize the need for clinical experiences and exposure. One of the most important predictors of whether or not someone is a strong, motivated applicant is the breadth of their clinical exposure. Minimal or a complete lack of experience may dash the hopes of gaining admission to medical school for an otherwise qualified applicant. I was getting ready to interview a candidate a few months ago who had very minimal clinical exposure listed on his application. He had spent some significant time in a research lab and had a fairly strong application with a good MCAT and GPA. In discussing this applicant with the faculty interviewer, we both agreed that they really had to convince us that they had an adequate understanding of and insight into medicine or he would be rejected, despite an otherwise decent application. It really came down to clinical exposure.

On a separate note, if you are still worried about answering “Why medicine?”, I would suggest doing some more shadowing. This will allow you to get to know the physician, their specialty, and medicine overall. You’ll meet that one patient that will affect you in some meaningful way. You will never forget them and will be able to talk about your experience for years (and in interviews). I had such an encounter with one of the surgeons I was shadowing. A little girl showed up with a dog bite to the face, brought into the office by her parents. It was just about time for all of us to go home and we ended up taking her into surgery that night. It was one of the most exciting experiences for me as an undergrad: it wasn’t just the actual surgery that was cool, but the whole experience with the patient and the drama surrounding the whole thing. It gave me a good story to help convey my passion for medicine.

I believe that if you only spend a few hours shadowing here and there, you really miss a large part of the experience. Be sure to spend enough hours shadowing the same physician. When I say “enough hours”, I would suggest that you may want to spend a few days or even a week with a physician in the office, the operating room, and/or maybe even taking some call. If you only go to see the “cool surgeries” and never go to clinic, you may miss out on some of the “real life” of a surgeon.

Other Clinical Exposure
Don’t forget that you can get clinical exposure in other ways as well. This includes any employment in clinics or volunteer work in an emergency department, for example. Just make sure it’s real exposure with patients and physicians.

Arranging Shadowing Experiences
Realize that you can set up your shadowing however you like. Some people like to shadow a few hours every week for several weeks or months, if that is what will fit in their schedules. As already mentioned, I personally preferred spending time with one physician for an entire week in one stretch, Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., to get a better idea of what it is really like. I did this with several different physicians in different specialties and followed one of them on call after hours. I scheduled my shadowing experiences during the summer when I was out of school for a few weeks during my undergrad, and would highly recommend it to anyone.

To schedule a shadowing experience, simply open the local Yellow Pages, pick the specialty you are interested in observing, and call any physician’s office. Tell the office person that you are a pre-med student at XYZ University planning on going to medical school next year. Ask them if Dr. Smith allows students to come into the office to shadow him or her. They very likely have done this before with other students. Tell them what dates you would prefer to shadow. Usually, the office staff will take down your phone number and then call you back after asking the physician or office manager. Many physicians are excited to have pre-meds in their offices.

While Shadowing
This may be obvious, but make sure you are dressed and groomed professionally when observing. If in doubt, overdress for the first day until you can get a feeling for what is acceptable in the office or the physician tells you it is okay to dress down. For men, that should be dress pants, shirt, and tie, and for women, dresses or professional business attire.

Most of the time, you mainly stand back and observe what the physician does without doing anything yourself. Try not to get in the way. After all, that is what shadowing is. Some physicians may involve you to some degree, may let you look in ears, for example, or be part of what they do in some fashion. If so, great, but don’t expect too much.

Actively ask questions between patients or when appropriate. The middle of a patient visit may be a bad time to quench your own thirst for knowledge. You want plenty of interaction with the physician so they can get to know you and see that you are interested in medicine, in patient care, etc. If you are interested in discussing controversial topics, do so with caution and professionalism instead of bias.

Recommendation Letters
At the conclusion of your experience, make sure you ask the physician for a strong letter of recommendation in support of your application to medical school. Don’t underestimate the letter and ask for it in the right way, because there is a right and a wrong way to ask for a letter. I’ll devote an entire column to recommendation letters in the near future, since they do play an important role, so stay tuned!

Christian Becker is the creator and operator of and an SDN Contributor.

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