Medical student shadows a doctor while they review images on a computer screen.

Medical Shadowing: The Definitive Guide

April 5, 2021


Introduction

Medical shadowing is one of the most beneficial clinical experiences to have before you apply to medical school. Admissions committees see shadowing as a demonstration of your commitment to medicine, and your participation helps solidify your decision that becoming a physician is right for you. While many students have heard of medical shadowing, many don’t fully  understand its importance, let alone  how to obtain  this form of experience. Our guide is meant to help you understand the basics of medical shadowing, its importance, and how to obtain the proper expertise to give you an advantage when applying to medical school.

Why Shadow as a Pre-Med Student?

While shadowing not required at  most medical schools, it is highly recommended that prospective medical school students have some shadowing experience. It gives you a chance to determine  if a career in medicine is right for you. According to Dr. Jessica Freedman, “Physician shadowing is essential for pre-meds because it's tough to know you want to be a physician if you haven't experienced what it means to practice medicine.” Shadowing allows you to find out which area of medicine interests you and give you an idea of what specialty you may want to pursue. As mentioned earlier, shadowing a doctor as a pre-med student is beneficial for several reasons. Firstly, medical schools love to see this type of experience in a student’s application. It demonstrates a student’s commitment to medicine because they have spent hours learning under direct supervision. It also shows you have spent the time researching which area of medicine  you wish to pursue.

Including shadowing experience on your application also tells the institution that you have seen firsthand the day-to-day life of a physician, from the simple services of patient care to the nitty-gritty legalities of running a practice. Shadowing will give you  an idea of what to expect as a physician; you see the pros and cons that come with the job. For example, you may be shadowing a doctor when they find out that their patient has cancer. You will see how the physician comes to this conclusion based on bloodwork and multiple tests performed and how the doctor informs the patient of this diagnosis. Delivering such news is never easy, and doctors must do so with strict professional decorum, so observing this firsthand can be both difficult and valuable. Understanding how a doctor goes about giving good and bad news to their patients proves to be one of the more challenging aspects of the job. However, by shadowing as a pre-med student, you will have a better idea of what to expect which will help you determine  if this is the career path for you.

Shadowing a physician also gives you a chance to ask questions to someone who is in the position you wish to be in after medical school. During breaks, you’ll likely have the opportunity to ask them what you want to know about the area of specialty in which you are interested. For example, suppose you are interested in Internal Medicine. In that case, you may ask the doctor about the most challenging part of working in internal medicine: the most challenging patient cases they have worked on and why, and even advice about entering the field and what you should consider before pursuing that path. This is your chance to get real, firsthand answers from a practicing physician. 

When Should You Start Medical Shadowing?

Start medical shadowing as early as possible. You don’t want to wait until you submit your primary application to attempt to complete hours of shadowing experience. Start looking into medical shadowing opportunities at the beginning of your sophomore year; you should spend your freshman year obtaining the required coursework expected by most medical schools. Medical schools want to see a decent number of hours of shadowing experience and understand your time and what you learned from following. Therefore, having spent a more extended time shadowing a physician is proven to be in your favor. You will have to spend time researching and contacting doctors before you hear back from them, so starting early gets your foot in the door. This will allow you to build up more experience that translates into your commitment to a career in medicine.

When you start researching shadowing opportunities, you must also consider whether the doctor is part of a large medical center or a private practice. According to U.S. News, doctors in private practice may only require an email or letter requesting a shadowing opportunity. In contrast, doctors in larger medical centers may need the facility to complete additional paperwork before shadowing. Therefore, starting your shadowing experience early prepares you for any bumps in the road that may arise when applying for opportunities.

How Do I Shadow a Doctor?

Because this will be a defining period as a pre-med student, you want to make sure you choose an opportunity that is most beneficial to you and your career path. Follow these necessary steps to find a doctor to shadow.

Identify Areas/Specialities of Interest

Research areas of the medical field that are of interest to you. There are certain areas in which you could specialize, so understanding medicine's different fields is a great start. Once you have some ideas about what you would like to learn more about, research doctors that specialize in that area of medicine. Shadowing these doctors gives you an inside look at how your life may be if you chose that career path. For example, if you feel you might want to pursue an oncology career, find an oncologist that offers shadowing opportunities. You can shadow them to get a feel for the field, and if you realize it isn’t what you want to pursue, you can go back and search for other areas that interest you. The point is to give yourself a chance to determine if a career in medicine is right for you  and  to give you some direction when it comes to determining areas of interest. 

Research Great Shadowing Opportunities

If you’re not sure which areas of medicine you’re interested in, cnd an area that catches your eye and start by looking at shadowing opportunities near you. Ask your current doctor(s) if you can shadow them or if they can recommend any physicians they know of that allow students to shadow them. Ask professors or academic advisors if they are aware of any shadowing opportunities as well. Research local medical centers and private practices and see if they offer the chance to shadow their physicians. 

Reach Out to Doctors

Do not wait until the last minute to reach out. Doctors are busy, and chances are they will not immediately respond to you. There may also be a procedure they must follow if they allow you to shadow them. Plan to contact physicians at least three weeks before you wish to begin shadowing. You can send a letter, write an email, or contact them directly by phone. Do not just show up to their practice expecting them to have the time to sit down and talk to you about shadowing them. Preparing a well-thought-out document requesting such an opportunity strengthens your chances of receiving a response.

Whether you are writing an email or letter–or calling the doctor on the phone–you want to have an outline of what to include in your request. Be sure to include the following information:

1. Your name

2. The school you attend

3. Your interest in going to medical school

4. Your desire to shadow the doctor and how you came across their information

5. Request to shadow the doctor

6. When you are available to speak to them

7. Your contact information

For example, let’s say Susan is thinking about applying to medical school and wants to shadow Dr. Khan, a local pediatrician in her town. She finds an email where she can send her shadowing request. Here is how she should draft her email to Dr. Khan:

Dear Dr. Khan,

My name is Susan Sanderson and I am a junior at San Diego State University majoring in Chemistry. I am writing to you because I am considering attending medical school to become a pediatrician and was hoping to shadow a doctor to get a better sense of the profession and be sure this is the path for me. I researched that you are one of the most recommended pediatricians in town and I thought you would be a great person to contact.

Would you allow me to shadow you for a few days a week in the upcoming months? I would be grateful for the opportunity to observe you in your profession. If you have any questions or concerns, I will be happy to speak with you about it. I look forward to hearing from you. Thank you and have a great day.

Sincerely,

Susan Sanderson

787-354-2897

Not only has Susan stated your desire to pursue medicine, but she also creates an opportunity to establish a dialogue between herself and the doctor in question. Your request does not have to be long; instead, keep it simple and concise in order to get your point across immediately.

How Many Shadowing Hours are Required for Medical School?

While there is no set standard of hours you should attain, it is recommended to aim for around 100 hours of shadowing experience. To put it in perspective, a doctor’s shift is anywhere from eight to ten hours, so if you shadow them for ten shifts, you will have accumulated anywhere from 80 to 100 hours. Do as much as you can, within reason. Beginning shadowing early gives you a better chance of obtaining more hours to appeal to the admissions committee of the medical school of your choosing. In total, you want to have at least 200 total hours of clinical experience, including shadowing, volunteering, and extracurricular activities. However, it is not about numbers; some students get into medical school with only 100 hours of shadowing while others have done 400 hours. It is more about the quality and length of the work rather than the quantity. 

If you are particular about a specific area of medicine, then reach out to doctors in that field to shadow. However, if you are unsure where to start, find doctors from different specialties to shadow. You want to get a full range of experience, so you have a better understanding of the commitment when choosing a career in medicine, along with the chance to find out which area you are passionate about.

Tips for Effective Medical Shadowing

When you begin shadowing a physician, you feel like you want to absorb as much information and ask as many questions as possible. However, there is an etiquette to medical shadowing of which you must be aware. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your shadowing experience.

Dress for success. You want to make a good impression on both the doctor and their patients. Would you trust a doctor who comes to you dressed in shorts and flip flops, or would their lack of professionalism deter you? Dress professionally to be taken seriously. Ask the doctor you are shadowing if there is a dress code at the facility in  which they work. If you are unsure, dress business casual, tie back long hair and wear closed-toed shoes. 

Be on time. Tardiness does not translate well in the medical field. Doctors do not like to have their time wasted. If you show up late, they will assume you do not take their time seriously and will no longer allow you to shadow them. Remember, they are doing you a favor; they do not have to let you shadow them. Be respectful and show up early.

Do not use your phone. You want to show the doctor you are shadowing that you are committed to a career in medicine. Be present and engage with the physician. Keep your phone off or on silent mode and out of sight. Do not take pictures or post about patients on social media; this can lead to legal action against you by the doctor or healthcare facility. 

Take notes. You are there to learn, and you may forget a few things that were discussed. Have something handy to take notes on. You can write down any questions you may have and ask the doctor about them when they are between patients or on break. Feel free to also jot down any medical terminology or  confusing topics as  you can research these later. Do not write personal or confidential information about patients in your notes. Likewise, be mindful of the messages you are taking in front of patients. Taking notes is also a great way to track moments or events that you can discuss in your medical school application.  

Know when to ask questions. There is a right and wrong time to ask doctors questions when shadowing. Do not ask questions in front of patients or while the doctor is with a patient. This comes off as disrespectful and unprofessional. Ask questions in between patients or when the doctors ask you if you have questions. Be mindful of the time and place. There is no rush to have your questions answered, so know when it is appropriate to do so.

Know your place. Remember, you are not the doctor. You are shadowing to get an idea of a physician's day-to-day life and find out if that area of medicine is right for you. You are meant to observe and only observe. You should not chime in and give your own prognosis of patients or assist the doctor (unless asked). You are there to watch and learn.

Be friendly and respectful to patients. When shadowing a doctor, you will interact with an array of patients and be introduced to them. Sometimes students are left alone for a few minutes with a patient, or a patient may ask them questions about their experience, their schooling, etc. Also, some patients may not want a student present in the room, so the doctor may ask you to step out of the room. Do not take this personally. Be friendly, respectful, and mindful of doctor-patient relationships.

Send a thank-you note. Doctors do not have to allow you to shadow them. Therefore, it is a nice gesture of appreciation to send a thank-you note to those you shadow. Thank them for their time and tell them that you appreciated the opportunity to shadow them. This is a great way to establish a lasting relationship with them, and in the medical field, that goes a long way.

Frequently Asked Questions About Medical Shadowing

1. Is there a specific type of doctor I should shadow?

There is no specific type of doctor you should shadow. You want to find one who specializes in the area of medicine in which you are interested. If you are unsure, reach out to a few doctors in  different specialties, so you can get a better idea of which field you wish to pursue.

2. Does medical shadowing count as clinical experience?

Yes, medical shadowing does count as clinical experience, but it should not be the only experience you pursue. You should also be involved in other extracurricular activities, but include medical shadowing in your arsenal.

3. What if I can’t shadow as a pre-med student?

If work or school makes it difficult for you to shadow, find a doctor who allows you to follow them virtually. It is a similar experience to that of in-person shadowing. However, it is conducted virtually. You would sit in on the video conference between doctor and patient and observe as you would in person. This option allows for more flexibility with time and schedules as well.

4. Do medical schools require shadowing experience?

Some medical schools do require shadowing experience, while others do not. Research requirements for the medical schools you are interested in attending to see if they have a shadowing requirement. As previously mentioned, regardless of whether shadowing is required or not, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.

5. Should I ask the doctor that I shadow for a letter of recommendation?

That is contingent upon how much time you spend with them. If you have only shadowed the doctor once or twice then do not ask them for a letter. Shadowing a doctor for a few days does not give them the basis of who you are as a person. However, if you have set up shadowing on a regular basis with a doctor for months on end, then they have a better understanding of you who are and can provide a great letter of recommendation. 

6. Is shadowing worth the commitment? Will it really benefit me in the long run?

There are many benefits to shadowing as a pre-med student. Students have a higher chance of getting into medical school if they demonstrate some shadowing experience. Shadowing also gives you a better idea of what to expect when becoming a doctor and area in which you wish to specialize. It demonstrates your commitment to a career in medicine, which the admissions committees want to see in candidates.

Conclusion

Medical shadowing takes time and commitment. You spend hours researching and reaching out to doctors in hopes they will allow you to observe them. However, your dedication to shadowing emphasizes your passion for medicine–a quality medical schools love to see in applicants. With this guide, you will be able to effectively obtain shadowing experience that will prove beneficial to you in the medical field.

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