How to Shadow a PA: Complete Guide

January 30, 2024
6 min read


Reviewed by:

Jonathan Preminger

Former Admissions Committee Member, Hofstra-Northwell School of Medicine

Reviewed: 1/30/24

As an aspiring PA student, understanding how to shadow a PA is essential to gaining an understanding of a PA’s day-to-day responsibilities and valuable clinical experience.

Shadowing a physician assistant (PA) is a vital step toward a rewarding career. It provides a real-world view of healthcare, helping you understand the PA profession better.

You'll witness patient care, medical decision-making, and teamwork in action. This experience goes beyond textbooks, offering a taste of your future career and inspiring dedication.

Our guide covers PA shadowing essentials, valuable for newcomers to healthcare or PA school preparation, setting the stage for a successful healthcare career.

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The Importance of Shadowing a PA

Shadowing a PA provides an opportunity to observe the daily responsibilities of a PA up close, from patient consultations to medical procedures. 

This immersive experience is vital for understanding the multifaceted nature of patient care, including how PAs interact with patients, handle complex cases, and collaborate with other healthcare professionals.

Shadowing a PA extends beyond mere observation; it allows aspiring students to understand the practical realities and challenges of the profession, which is not always apparent in classroom learning. This real-world exposure is instrumental in developing a deeper appreciation for the role of PAs in the healthcare system.

Additionally, having shadowing experience can significantly strengthen your application for PA school. Admissions committees often look for candidates who have a realistic understanding of what a PA's role entails. 

Shadowing demonstrates your commitment and dedication to pursuing this career path, showing that you have taken proactive steps to ensure that this is the right choice for you.

In essence, shadowing a PA is more than just an educational requirement; it's a journey into the heart of the profession, offering insights and experiences that are invaluable for anyone aspiring to join this dynamic field of healthcare.

doctor and nurse at patient bedside

How to Find a PA to Shadow

Understanding how to find a PA to shadow is crucial, and it all starts with tapping into your personal and professional networks. 

Begin by reaching out to your immediate circle—family members, friends, and mentors—and inquire if they have connections with any physician assistants. Often, personal recommendations can lead to opportunities for shadowing.

Expanding your search for a PA to local healthcare settings is also a strategic move. Visit nearby clinics, hospitals, and other medical facilities to ask about shadowing opportunities. These institutions frequently have PAs on staff and may be open to facilitating shadow experiences for aspiring students.

Tapping into professional networks can also significantly broaden your search. Joining professional organizations related to the PA field is a smart strategy. These organizations often have resources and networks designed to help students like you. They can provide listings, contact details, or even shadowing programs for members.

Exploring online platforms is another effective approach. Participate in online forums and social media groups dedicated to PAs and PA students. These digital communities are not only a hub for information and advice but also a platform where you can connect with PAs who might be open to offering shadowing opportunities. 

Engaging in these forums can also provide insights into the experiences of others who have successfully found shadowing opportunities, offering guidance on best practices and potential leads.

Overall, finding a PA to shadow involves a combination of leveraging personal contacts, approaching healthcare facilities, engaging with professional organizations, and utilizing online resources. Each of these avenues can offer unique opportunities and increase your chances of securing a valuable shadowing experience.

How to Ask a PA to Shadow Them

After identifying a potential PA to shadow, the next step is mastering how to ask a PA to shadow them. This phase requires a blend of professionalism, courtesy, and clarity. Here are some guidelines on how to approach this:

  1. Professional Communication: Whether you choose to send an email or a letter, ensure that your communication is well-structured. Use a professional tone and address the PA respectfully, using appropriate titles and their last name.
  2. Clear and Concise Introduction: Start by introducing yourself, including your educational background and your interest in the PA profession. This helps to establish a connection and provides context for your request.
  3. Express Your Interest: Clearly articulate your interest in shadowing them. Mention any aspects of their practice or specialty that you find particularly appealing or relevant to your career aspirations.
  4. State Your Objectives: Explain what you hope to gain from the shadowing experience. Whether it's understanding the PA-patient relationship, observing clinical procedures, or gaining insights into the daily challenges of the profession, outlining your goals shows that you have a purposeful approach.
  5. Flexibility and Availability: Acknowledge that PAs have busy schedules. Indicate your willingness to accommodate their availability. Being flexible about the timing and duration of the shadowing experience can make it easier for them to say yes.
  6. Express Gratitude in Advance: Regardless of their response, express your appreciation for their consideration of your request. Gratitude goes a long way and leaves a positive impression.
  7. Follow-Up Protocol: Mention that you will follow up if you haven't heard back in a reasonable time frame. This demonstrates your commitment and enthusiasm without being intrusive.
  8. Contact Information: Provide your contact details, making it easy for them to respond to your request.

Remember, the way you present your request can significantly impact the response. A well-crafted, respectful, and thoughtful approach not only increases your chances of a positive outcome but also reflects your professionalism and suitability for a career in healthcare.

male doctor in hospital hallway

How to Shadow a PA

When you begin your shadowing experience with a PA, engaging fully to make the most of this opportunity is essential. Here are some guidelines to help you navigate this experience:

1. Be Observant 

Observing the PA's interactions is crucial. Pay attention to how they communicate with patients and MDs, handle sensitive situations, and collaborate with other healthcare professionals. 

Notice their bedside manner, how they explain diagnoses and treatments, and how they manage their time. Observing these nuances will give you a comprehensive view of the skills and attributes needed to be a successful PA.

2. Ask Questions

Inquisitiveness is a key part of learning. Prepare thoughtful questions in advance and ask them at appropriate times, such as after a patient consultation or during a quiet moment. 

Your questions could range from specific medical inquiries to broader questions about career paths and challenges in the field. This not only demonstrates your interest but also deepens your understanding of the profession.

3. Maintain Professionalism

Professionalism is paramount in any clinical setting. Dress in appropriate attire that adheres to the facility's dress code. Be punctual, showing respect for the PA's time and schedule. Additionally, always maintain patient confidentiality and privacy – a fundamental principle in healthcare.

4. Reflect on Your Experience 

After each shadowing session, take the time to reflect on what you observed and learned. Consider keeping a journal to note your experiences, thoughts, and how they relate to your career goals. This reflection will help solidify your learning and offer insights into your personal and professional growth.

5. Show Appreciation

Expressing gratitude is crucial. Thank the PA for their time and insights at the end of each shadowing session. A thoughtful thank-you note or email after completing your shadowing experience can leave a lasting positive impression and potentially foster a lasting professional relationship.

6. Engage With the Team

If the opportunity arises, interact with other members of the healthcare team. This can provide a broader perspective of how PAs fit within the larger healthcare ecosystem.

7. Observe Ethical Conduct

Pay attention to how the PA navigates ethical dilemmas and adheres to professional standards. This is a crucial aspect of healthcare that is best understood through real-world observation.

8. Seek Feedback

If appropriate, ask for feedback on your engagement and understanding. This can provide valuable insights into your learning process and areas for improvement.

By adhering to these guidelines, you are doing more than just learning how to shadow a PA; you are actively engaging with the healthcare culture and practices. This journey is more than just an observational experience; it's a foundational step towards a rewarding career in the PA field. 

It combines educational enrichment, personal development, and professional growth. Fully embrace this chance to not only affirm your passion but also to assess your aptitude for a career as a physician assistant.

FAQs: PA Shadowing

In this section, we address common questions and provide clear answers to help streamline your journey into shadowing a physician assistant, ensuring you are well-prepared and informed.

1. How Many Hours Should I Shadow a PA?

Most PA programs seek applicants with 20 to 40 shadowing hours but research each program's specific requirements. 

The number of hours needed for shadowing a PA can vary depending on factors such as PA program requirements, your schedule, and PA availability. Ultimately, the goal is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the PA's role, which may involve more hours or diverse specialties.

2. How Do You Approach a PA to Shadow?

Approach a PA to shadow by sending a polite, professional email expressing your interest and willingness to accommodate their schedule and preferences.

3. What Do You Learn When You Shadow a PA?

Shadowing a PA offers firsthand insights into clinical skills, patient interaction, teamwork, and the practical application of medical knowledge. It helps you assess your interest in the field and gain a deeper understanding of the PA's role and responsibilities.

Final Thoughts

Overall, shadowing a physician assistant is a crucial step for aspiring PA students, offering an in-depth look into the profession's daily responsibilities and challenges. 

The process of learning how to shadow a PA transcends simple observation; it's an immersive experience crucial for comprehending patient care, decision-making, and teamwork in healthcare. 

This essential aspect of PA education effectively bridges the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application in the medical field, equipping students with the necessary insights for a thriving career in healthcare.

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