Clinical experience for medical school, what is it, and do you need it? Clinical experience, or what some may call clinical exposure, is actively engaging with patients or their care. As a physician, you will need to be comfortable getting up close and personal with patients, and schools want to see that you are capable of doing this. An exceptional GPA and MCAT score are still necessary, but in the end, you will be treating people, not textbooks.
Anyone can take a test and obtain good grades, but actually interacting with patients is what is required to be an effective physician one day. Showing the initiative to practice this skill by gaining clinical experience prior to medical school will help you stand out as dedicated to the path of medicine. Just as you invest your time and resources into preparing for medical school, the school you attend will, in turn, invest time and resources into you. Gaining clinical experience will reassure schools their investment in you will be a lasting one. This is because it will help you gain a better understanding of your upcoming journey. Medicine is ideally a lifelong commitment. Medical school and residency alone will require seven or more years of your life, depending on your specialty. Like any long-term relationship, the sooner you are exposed to the good, bad, and the ugly of medicine, the better.
You may think, “I have volunteered” or “I have shadowed,” drawing the conclusion that you have enough experience for a complete application. However, a strong application includes more than helping patients navigate the hospital. Ideal hands-on experience to add to your observational experience could include taking vitals, drawing blood, or interacting in any other way that is more care related.
Clinical experience can be either paid or unpaid. With unpaid experiences, you may be volunteering with a medical organization or shadowing a physician. Paid clinical exposure can be as simple as scribing, where you’ll listen and record a physician’s logic first-hand or as complex as working as an emergency room tech dressing wounds, taking various samples, monitoring vitals and more. Working as an EMT provides valuable exposure to emergency situations. While it will not provide as much interaction when it comes to working within a hospital and getting a feel of how professional relationships work in that space, it will allow you to decide if the heavy responsibility of medicine is for you. There is also the added bonus of having plenty to talk about during your interviews due to the variety of emergencies you will see and tend to on your own.
Phlebotomists and pharmacy technician roles are straight forward. Phlebotomists interested in medicine will either work in a hospital or a clinic and they will draw blood samples. To increase exposure to different patient circumstances, working in a hospital will be a beneficial choice. Pharmacy technicians work for retail pharmacies or hospitals. While any hands-on experience is beneficial, a hospital setting will familiarize you with the experiences you will have as both a student and resident. A hospital environment will allow you an opening to speak with physicians and gather insights regarding the medications you will be assisting with alongside pharmacists. Remember, the point of clinical experience is to prove that you are taking the time to become comfortable with patients and you have explored medicine enough to know it is the path to which you would like to dedicate yourself.
Many people understand the role of a CNA (Certified Nursing Assistant), but these individuals tend to be referred to simply as nurses. This does not specify the several nurse credentials that exist. For the purposes of clinical experience LPN (licensed practical nurse) is a good option because it takes one year to obtain this credential rather than the 2-year associate degree it takes to become a RN (Registered Nurse), the 4-year degree to become a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing), or the even longer Nurse Practitioner route. Licensed practical nurses are able to take vitals, collect samples, and administer medicines. They can also work in assorted patient-centric locations expanding options from the hospital while obtaining clinical experience. Certified nursing assistants help with day-to-day tasks and support patients during physical activities. For perspective, LPNs will work under a RN and CNAs will work under an LPN or RN.
Obtaining good volunteer experience that can serve as clinical experience as well will take some networking and refining of your interpersonal skills. These skills will be necessary because you may need to ask for the opportunity to be more hands-on once you are in your volunteer role. This is especially true if these roles are not structured to provide you with clinical exposure. You will need to do more than filing papers and making appointment reminders to fulfill the patient exposure aspect.
You can give yourself a head start by choosing a volunteer opportunity such as the previously mentioned EMT volunteer role or a medical center volunteer. EMT volunteer programs offer training and will allow you to be completely hands-on. These programs may have a time commitment. Some schools, like Emory University, provide EMS services that will train you to become an EMT. These programs may be limited to students. Medical centers will often have a large array of needs for you to fulfill as a volunteer and are open to the public. Be aware that you may come across medical centers that already work with medical students or have relationships with schools that funnel students to them to fill volunteer positions. You will need to show determination and aptitude when it comes to securing more elaborate opportunities.
Hospice volunteers and emergency room volunteer opportunities will provide a vastly different form of patient exposure. In these roles, you will be responsible for comforting patients or their families, sometimes both. Hospice patients are preparing for the end of their life and their families are preparing with them. This will prepare you for the hard moments you will experience as a physician. Hospice volunteers do have the opportunity to be hands-on, depending on the hospice program. Certain programs allow volunteers to provide massage or even aromatherapies. When you speak with your interviewer about an experience like volunteering with a hospice, you will want to emphasize the compassion you learned for both the patient and the families. This role will be one that emotionally stretches you. Highlight that point. The emotional highs and lows you will endure will serve you well in developing your bedside manner.
As stated, emergency room volunteers will also play an emotional role. Families will potentially be in a state of panic or distress. Your position will provide them items of comfort such as blankets and pillows, possibly even toys. You may also be able to enhance the comfort of stable patients as well. This is another chance to emotionally stretch. The emotional states will not be as predictable as in the hospice. You may encounter anger, sorrow, anxiety, frustration all at once. Exposure to a range of emotions while practicing maintenance of a steady internal state is surely a skill that will be worth fostering in future physicians.
As you can see, the amount and type of clinical exposure you are able to gain varies greatly from opportunity to opportunity. If you have the time to gain the necessary certifications, the paid options will likely give you the most hands-on clinical experience. This makes sense because you will be specifically trained to work with patients in your role. Volunteer EMT and phlebotomist opportunities that come with training are difficult to find, though they exist. Your clinical experience is truly what you make it. If you become a phlebotomist and never ask questions or build relationships in the hospital, it will not benefit you as much as volunteering in a medical center and speaking about medical decisions regularly. Recall that the goal of clinical experience is exposure to the inner workings of medicine and patient care to prove you are making the right choice for your future. You will need to be able to clearly articulate and justify your decisions in your medical school interview. No matter what path you choose to fulfill this unspoken, undetermined requirement, be sure you remain inquisitive and ever learning in the process.
These are suggestions of proven ways to get clinical experience. Any meaningful experience that exposes you to patients should be sufficient enough to consider it clinical experience. When contemplating which role to choose, there are some personal considerations. As a medical school hopeful, you are likely a busy student. A part-time clinical exposure opportunity that will be a good fit for your studies is ideal. It is most beneficial to gain experience over a good period of time. Try to plan for several months at minimum to show admissions committees your ability to commit to a path. A quality choice will be one that you are enthusiastic about and enjoy attending.
For nontraditional students aspiring to medical school, who may not be taking a full course load, full-time options may work with your schedule if you are taking night or weekend classes. You will want to be just as careful as full-time students not to overcommit yourself and ensure you can dedicate an extended time to your clinical experience opportunity. Full-time positions will require more training, but several options that will have you gaining clinical experience in less than a year.
Choosing an option that requires extensive training can be a challenging decision when deciding if it will be worth training while simultaneously taking classes. If you are unsure of the payoff of your desired method or you have an area of interest not mentioned, it is always a good idea to reach out to schools and inquire with your premed advisor.
Shadowing opportunities can be difficult to secure. The easiest way to find shadow opportunities is by starting with who you know and asking. Your own doctor may be open to having you shadow. School-affiliated medical centers or professors are also a good place to start, especially if you have a good relationship with them. As long as you’re a good student, they will be happy to connect you if they know someone you could potentially shadow. If these options do not bear fruit, you will need to think about what kind of physician you want to shadow. For example, if you love working with children, search for pediatricians to shadow. After you have decided, search for that type of physician in your area and begin the cold calling or cold emailing process. You could even consider stopping by and leaving a written letter if you really have your heart set on a particular physician. That extra effort could make all the difference.
Remember physicians are busy, so you will likely not be able to stop by and talk to them. Also, securing more than one opportunity is always a good idea so long as you make sure you can be dedicated to each
Your school may be able to connect you to volunteer opportunities if you reach out to your pre-med advisors or the school medical center. If they have their own EMS program, you may find your school will be one of the few that will provide EMT training. Some schools have hospital affiliations. If your school does, stop by and ask about your options to volunteer. Determine which option suits your needs and interests the most. Local hospitals and medical centers in your area will also have a variety of choices for you to choose from, if going through your school is not possible. Many have an online application to volunteer. Often, several opportunities are listed. Call or email to learn more about each one and get an idea of which option will be the most involved. This will help you get the most out of your volunteer experience and ensure it will also provide you clinical exposure. Some hospitals have a coordinator for volunteers; this is who you would speak with if you’d like to volunteer in this setting. When choosing an opportunity, keep in mind you want to enjoy what you are doing so that it is sustainable and you can do it long enough to build a good relationship with your organization
The mentioned paid experience options will require either training or a certificate. For instance, scribing does not require a certificate, but it may help with your duties. Some jobs will provide on-the-job training. Phlebotomy typically requires a certificate which can be obtained in as little as 3 weeks with the average being 8 weeks depending on the chosen program and structure. Red Cross periodically hires for phlebotomists that they will train which is helpful as the training courses are $1000 and higher in price. For the other paid clinical experience opportunities, you will need to obtain the associated certifications on your own. Note that while volunteer EMTs are not paid, some programs train them for free. Consider this if you want to be an EMT. It could be worth forfeiting pay if EMT training does not fit your budget as it is also normally upwards of $1000.
After you get your certifications, you will apply to these positions like any other job. Be sure to make meaningful relationships and perform well in whichever you choose. You may need a letter of recommendation from someone you work with in this role.
Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately for anxious pre-meds, there is no set amount of time you need to spend gaining clinical experience. All you need is good quality experience that is carried out over a long enough period to demonstrate a trait of commitment. It is not uncommon for students to have 100 hours or more under their belt. Aim for over 100, and when in doubt, inquire to the admissions office of your desired school. Think of it this way, one hour once a week for 2 months likely will not be perceived as dedicated to medicine. It will surely leave the committee wondering if 8 hours was enough time to be certain you want to spend nearly a decade of your life and a small fortune on your education.
It depends on your involvement. If you get to take patient histories or collect samples, those interactions can be considered clinical experience.
Yes, you will want your application to be as well-rounded as possible. If you are concerned about time management choose a volunteer clinical experience method.
One hands-on experience of good quality and duration can be enough. However, be sure to shadow a physician or two as well to be thorough in demonstrating your certainty.
While you are making sure your GPA is up to snuff and your MCAT is in the highest percentile possible, do not forget about your extracurriculars. The medical school application pool is comprised of the best of the best. Your clinical experience is just as important and can really help your application shine amongst your equally academically talented competitors. Do not forget, clinical experience is about patient exposure and what matters is the quality of the experience not the number of experiences. This does not mean you should not do as many clinical exposure opportunities as you can, you certainly should. However, be sure to show a level of commitment to each opportunity you receive. Do your best to obtain experiences that will give the admissions committee a reason to believe you are dedicated to the long, rigorous path of medicine.