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

Medical Shadowing: The Definitive Guide

November 19, 2021
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Part 1. IntroductionPart 2. Why Shadow as a Pre-Med Student?Part 3. When Should You Start Medical Shadowing?Part 4. How Do I Shadow a Doctor?Part 5. Virtual Medical ShadowingPart 6. About Physician ObservershipsPart 7. Good Questions to Ask a Doctor While ShadowingPart 8. How Many Shadowing Hours are Required for Medical School?Part 9. Tips for Effectively Shadowing a Doctor Part 10. Medical Shadowing FAQPart 11. Medical Shadowing: Worth All the Hard Work

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 know how to shadow a doctor. Our guide will 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 the top medical schools in the US.

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Why Shadow as a Pre-Med Student?

Medical shadowing is not mandatory, and you can still get into medical school without it. However, physician shadowing is a valuable experience that allows you to gauge whether you want to pursue a career in medicine. 

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. It also exposes you to the benefits and drawbacks of 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 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 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 gives you a chance to ask someone in your dream career questions. 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 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. 

You don’t want to wait until you submit your primary application to complete hours of shadowing experience. You will have to spend time researching and contacting doctors before you hear back from them. So, start looking into medical shadowing opportunities at the beginning of your sophomore year. 

When you start researching opportunities for medical school, 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 you can shadow. Therefore, starting your shadowing experience early prepares you for any bumps in the road that may arise when applying for opportunities.

If you are struggling to find any opportunities, consult with a medical school admissions expert who can set you on the right track. 

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 your life if you choose that career path. 

For example, if you feel you might want to pursue an oncology career, 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 to pursue, 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 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 or how to find a doctor to shadow, 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 are aware of any shadowing 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 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.

How to Ask to Shadow Your Doctor

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:

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 her 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; keep it concise and straightforward to get your point across immediately.


Virtual Medical Shadowing

Virtual shadowing will never replace an ENT visit. However, it provides an opportunity for students to gain clinical experience while 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 that, “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 students can experience the extra stage of follow-up patient care during their 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 will even provide 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 patient 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 some form of active participation. This can include a question-answer session, case discussions sessions, or topic presentations. 

Much like medical shadowing, observerships can be fantastic opportunities to learn from practicing physicians. By attending clinical rounds and official meetings, you can get 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 are observing.

Good Questions to Ask a Doctor While Shadowing

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 will nearly always have a busy schedule. 

Several good questions that you can ask a doctor while shadowing them include the following: 

How Many Shadowing Hours Are Required for Medical School?

While there is 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 10 hours, so if you shadow them for 10 shifts, you will have accumulated anywhere from 80 to 100 hours. Beginning shadowing early gives you a better chance of obtaining more hours to impress the medical school’s admissions committee of your choosing. 

In total, you want to have at least 200 total hours of clinical experience, including shadowing, volunteering, and extracurricular activities. However, how many shadowing hours you complete for medical school is your decision.

Keep in mind that the required number of shadowing hours for medical school is not set in stone. 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 of where to start, find doctors from different specialties to shadow. 

You want to get a full range of experiences 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 want to pursue.

Tips for Effectively Shadowing a Doctor  

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 to help you get into medical school.

Dress for Success  

You want to make a good impression on both the doctor and their patients. But do you know what to wear to shadow a doctor?

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, as if you were dressing for your medical school interview. Ask the doctor you are shadowing whether 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 may no longer allow you to shadow them. Remember, these doctors are doing you a favor and 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 also to 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 when Shadowing a Doctor

Remember, you are not the doctor. You are shadowing to get an idea of a physician's day-to-day life and determine whether 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 they may ask questions about their experience or schooling. 

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 letter for your shadowing experience. 

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.

what you need to know about medical shadowing

Medical Shadowing FAQ

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 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 medical school admission requirements for the programs you are 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 for Medical School 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, then do not ask them for a recommendation 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 regularly shadowed a doctor for months on end, they better understand who you 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 the 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.


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 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 effectively obtain shadowing experience that will prove beneficial to you in the medical field.


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