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Medical Shadowing: The Definitive Guide

July 22, 2022
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Why Shadow as a Pre-Med Student?When Should You Start Medical Shadowing?How Do I Shadow a Doctor?Virtual Medical ShadowingAbout Physician ObservershipsGood Questions to Ask a Doctor While ShadowingHow Many Shadowing Hours are Required for Medical School?Tips on How to Shadow a DoctorMedical Shadowing FAQ

”Rohan

Reviewed by:

Rohan Jotwani

Former Chief Resident in Anesthesiology, Weill Cornell Medicine, & Admissions Officer, Columbia University

Reviewed: 7/22/22

Infographic with "What you need to know about medical shadowing" written in big letters

If you’re seeking clinical experience for medical school, shadowing a doctor is an excellent experience to pursue. Read on to learn what to know before shadowing a doctor and more! 

Medical shadowing is one of the most beneficial clinical experiences to have before applying to medical school. Admissions committees see shadowing as a demonstration of your commitment to medicine. Your participation also 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 shadow a doctor. Our guide will help you understand the basics of medical shadowing, what to expect when shadowing a doctor, and how shadowing is advantageous when applying to the top medical schools in the U.S.

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Why Shadow as a Pre-Med Student?

Graphic listing the reasons why pre-med students should observe physicians

Medical shadowing is not mandatory; you can still get into medical school without it. But what do you gain from shadowing a doctor?

Physician shadowing is a valuable experience that allows you to gauge whether you want to pursue a medical career. There are numerous benefits of shadowing a doctor. 

Indeed, the AAMC notes that shadowing a doctor is an excellent way “to find out if a career in medicine might be right for you,” as “it will give you a better understanding of what a doctor’s typical day is like, and give you good experience to talk about in your applications and interviews for medical school.”

Spending time under direct supervision in different specialties and medical environments is a great way to find which areas of medicine interest you and can lead you to potential specializations such as: 

It also exposes you to the benefits and drawbacks of the job: what you gain from shadowing a physician is valuable. For example, you may shadow a doctor when they discover their patient has cancer. You’ll see how the physician concludes this based on the tests performed and 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 delivers news to their patients is one of the more challenging aspects of the job. 

However, by shadowing as a pre-med student, you’ll understand what to expect, which will help you determine if this is your career path. Shadowing a physician allows you to ask someone in your dream career questions. During breaks, you’ll likely have time 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 or if they have any advice about entering the field. This is your chance to get real, firsthand answers from a practicing physician. 

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When Should You Start Medical Shadowing?

Start medical shadowing as early as possible. It’s best to start shadowing long before submitting your primary medical school application. Researching potential doctors and reaching out to them takes time, as does waiting for responses. To give yourself enough time, consider seeking shadowing opportunities during your sophomore year. 

When researching shadowing opportunities, you must consider whether the doctor works at a private practice or a large hospital/medical center. U.S. News states that doctors in private practices may only require a request for a shadowing.

In contrast, doctors working in larger medical centers may have to submit additional paperwork to process your request. Therefore, seeking opportunities early better prepares you for any roadblocks. If you’re struggling to find openings, consult with a medical school admissions expert who can help you find opportunities. 

How Do I Shadow a Doctor?

Graphic showing students how to observe an MD

Because this will be a defining period as a pre-med student, you want to ensure you choose the most beneficial opportunity for 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 interest you. There are numerous specializations, so understanding the different fields is a great start. Once you have ideas about what you’d like to learn more about, research doctors in that specialization. Shadowing these doctors gives you an inside look at what your career could look like.

For example, if you feel you might want to pursue oncology, find an oncologist who offers shadowing opportunities. You can shadow them to get a feel for the field, and if you realize it isn’t what you want, you can go back and search for other areas that interest you. 

The point is to give yourself a chance to determine whether a career in medicine is right for you and direction when determining areas of interest. 

Research Great Shadowing Opportunities

If you’re not sure which areas of medicine you’re interested in or how to find a doctor, 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 who allow students to shadow them. 

Ask professors or academic advisors if they’re aware of any opportunities as well. Research local medical centers and private practices to 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 for 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. 

Don’t just show up to their practice expecting them to have time to sit down and talk. Preparing a well-thought-out document requesting such an opportunity strengthens your chances of receiving a positive response.

How to Ask to Shadow Your Doctor

Whether you’re writing an email, letter, or calling the doctor, you want to have an outline of what to include in your request. Be sure to include the following information:

For example, let’s say Susan is considering 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 them. 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 her desire to pursue medicine, but she also creates an opportunity to establish a dialogue between herself and the doctor. Your request does not have to be long; keep it straightforward to get your point across immediately.

Virtual Medical Shadowing

Virtual shadowing will never replace an ENT visit. However, it allows students to gain clinical experience if in-person shadowing is on hold. 

Of course, physicians can only conduct limited physical examinations virtually. But, Dr. Punim Thakkar, assistant professor of otolaryngology at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, believes virtual shadowing has been valuable for his patients and practice. 

He notes, “It is worthwhile for students because they still have the ability to shadow attendings as we take a thorough history, and when appropriate, students themselves can interview patients while their attendings observe them.” 

Many patient follow-ups are handled virtually so that students can experience the extra stage of follow-up care during virtual medical shadowing. Aside from being able to wear your comfy pink slippers, you can shadow physicians outside of your geographic location. Also, there are no commute times!  

How to Shadow a Doctor Virtually 

Both HEAL Clinical Education Network and Webshadowers provide free weekly virtual shadowing opportunities. HEAL even provides a certificate to help you document your completed hours. Webshadowers also provides DO shadowing opportunities.  

About Physician Observerships

Seattle Children’s Hospital defines physician observerships as “an experience where individuals with or without prior medical education can observe medical professionals as they care for patients and families for a specific period of time in this healthcare facility.” 

Unlike shadowing, medical observerships offer students the opportunity to gain hands-off clinical experience in a clinical setting. As such, there is no direct patient care like physicals, histories, or access to confidential data involved.  

Your duties during a medical observership are restricted to watching and listening to: 

But, unlike shadowing opportunities where you follow a physician’s day-to-day activities, observerships include active participation. This can include a question-answer session, case discussion sessions, or topic presentations. 

Like medical shadowing, observerships can be fantastic opportunities to learn from practicing physicians. Attending clinical rounds and official meetings gives you a taste of what your future career entails. 

Observerships are usually brief rotations that last between four and eight weeks. Crucially, you can get a medical school letter of recommendation (LOR) from the physician you’re observing. 

Good Questions to Ask a Doctor While Shadowing

One main benefit of shadowing a doctor is the valuable knowledge they can give you. Asking thoughtful questions can lead to insightful conversations with your attending physician. However, the timing of your shadowing questions is important; ask your questions during scheduled chats, not during a patient examination. 

The golden rule is to be respectful and not disruptive. After all, physicians have busy schedules. Several good questions you can ask a doctor while shadowing them include the following: 

You can also ask any other appropriate questions that might pop up as you shadow. Remember to wait for the right time; write down your question if you think of one to save for later. 

How Many Shadowing Hours Are Required for Medical School?

Graphic outlining how many hours students sohuld shadow medical practitioners

While there’s no set standard of hours you should attain, aiming for around 100 shadowing hours for medical school is recommended. 

A doctor’s shift is anywhere from eight to ten hours, so if you shadow them for ten shifts, you’ll have accumulated anywhere from 80 to 100 hours. Beginning shadowing early gives you a better chance of obtaining more hours to impress medical school admissions committees. 

In total, you want at least 200 total hours of clinical experience, including: 

However, how many shadowing hours you complete for medical school is your decision.

Remember that the required number of shadowing hours isn’t set in stone. Some students get into medical school with 100 hours of physician shadowing, while others have 400 hours. It’s about the quality and length of the work rather than the quantity.

If you’re 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. 

Tips on How to Shadow a Doctor

Graphic outlining several tips for students who want to shadow MDs

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’s an etiquette to medical shadowing of which you must be aware. 

Here are some tips on how to shadow a doctor to get the most out of your experience and help you get into medical school.

Dress for Success  

You want to make a good impression on the doctor and their patients. But do you know what to wear to shadow a doctor? Think about it this way: would you trust a doctor who comes to you dressed in shorts and flip-flops, or would their lack of professional attire deter you? 

Dress professionally to be taken seriously, as if you were dressing for your medical school interview. Ask the doctor you’re shadowing whether the facility has a dress code. If you’re 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 don’t like to have their time wasted. If you show up late, they’ll assume you don’t take their time seriously, and they may no longer allow you to shadow them. Remember, these doctors are doing you a favor and don’t have to let you shadow them. Be respectful and show up early.

Don’t Use Your Phone

You want to show the doctor you’re shadowing that you’re 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. Don’t 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 and ask the doctor about them when they’re between patients or on break. Feel free to jot down any medical terminology or confusing topics to research later. Taking notes is also a great way to track moments or events you can discuss in your medical school application.  

Remember, don’t write personal or confidential information about patients in your notes.

Know When to Ask Questions 

There is a right and wrong time to ask doctors questions when shadowing. Don’t 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 doctor asks you if you have questions. Be mindful of the time and place. There’s no rush to have your questions answered, so know when it’s appropriate.

Know Your Place when Shadowing a Doctor

Remember, you’re not the doctor. You’re shadowing to get an idea of a physician's day-to-day life and determine whether that area of medicine is right for you. 

If you’re wondering what to do while shadowing a doctor, the answer is simple: you’re meant to observe and only observe. You shouldn’t chime in and give your own prognosis of patients or assist the doctor (unless asked). You’re there to watch and learn.

Be Friendly and Respectful to Patients

When shadowing a doctor, you will interact with many patients and be introduced to them. Sometimes, students are left alone for a few minutes with a patient, or they may ask questions about their experience or schooling. 

Some patients may not want a student in the room, so the doctor may ask you to step out. Don’t take this personally. Be friendly, respectful, and mindful of doctor-patient relationships.

Send a Thank-You Note 

Doctors don’t have to allow you to shadow them. Therefore, it’s a nice gesture of appreciation to send a thank-you letter for your shadowing experience. 

Thank them for their time and tell them 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.

Medical Shadowing FAQs

Let’s take a look at several medical shadowing questions and answers. 

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’re unsure, reach out to a few doctors in different specialties to 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.

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’s a similar experience to that of in-person shadowing. 

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 don’t. Research medical school admission requirements for the programs you’re interested in attending to see if they have a shadowing requirement. More prestigious universities like the Ivy League medical schools may have loftier requirements. 

As previously mentioned, regardless of whether shadowing is required, it’s an experience you won’t want to miss. 

5. How Much Shadowing Should I Do to Get a LOR? 

That is contingent upon how much time you spend with them. If you have only shadowed the doctor once or twice, don’t ask them for a recommendation letter. Shadowing a doctor for a few days does not give them the basis of who you are.

However, if you have regularly shadowed a doctor for months, they better understand who you are and can provide a great letter of recommendation. 

6. Is Shadowing Worth It?

There are many benefits to shadowing as a pre-med student. Students have a higher chance of getting into medical school if they have some shadowing experience. 

The goals of shadowing a doctor are to give you insight into the field and a potential specialty. It demonstrates your commitment to a career in medicine, which the admissions committees want to see in candidates.

7. What Do You Do While Shadowing a Doctor? 

You’re there for observation and observation only. What you need to do while shadowing a physician includes watching, taking notes, and thinking about questions to ask later. 

Medical Shadowing: Worth All the Hard Work

Medical shadowing takes time and commitment. You spend hours researching and reaching out to doctors in hopes they’ll 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’ll effectively obtain shadowing experience that will benefit you in the medical field.

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