Shadowing. Something every pre-med should have on their AMCAS application. The difficulty of this process can differ from person to person and place to place. For those with personal connections to physicians it can be as simple as a phone call. I myself lived in a rural area and did not know a single physician. I struggled to collect physician shadowing hours. It is important to realize that numbers are not everything. Medical schools know it can be difficult, especially in the post-COVID era. Here are some tips for how to reach out to doctors and how to make the most out of physician shadowing.
There is no set time frame on when to shadow. I would suggest any convenient time before your dedicated MCAT studying. Summer, Spring, and Christmas breaks work for some but not for everyone. In regards to the number of physician shadowing hours you need, don’t panic! You might hear that some students have hundreds and others have less than 50. The most important point is that when you apply to medical school you have an idea of what practicing medicine is like and what you are signing up for–it is not what you see on TV. Some schools might have a minimum number of physician shadowing hours so check every schools’ website. If you plan to apply to DO schools, it is essential to also shadow DO physicians. If you work in a medical field, you definitely don’t need as many hours, but it is always recommended to shadow in different locations and specialties to get a breadth of experiences. If you have no idea what area of medicine you might be interested in, family medicine would be the best place to start.
From personal experience, the easiest option is to reach out to any physicians you or your support network know. If you need to start at square one, I would recommend finding contact information online and reach out to a specific doctor. Emailing would be preferred over calling, but go with whatever information you have. Be aware that some will not respond to your email/phone call or the receptionist might not know how to forward your request. Some hospital systems require you to go through their human resources department first. With email correspondence, remain professional and be clear about being a pre-med, the amount of time you are requesting to shadow, and what you are hoping to gain from the experience. Sometimes the process to be approved for physician shadowing can take a couple of weeks, so be sure to reach out early. Have your shot records and TB skin tests handy and be ready to fill out lots of paperwork. Once you know where you will shadow, be sure to ask what is the appropriate dress. It would be unfortunate to be in scrubs when everyone else is in business professional clothes.
Write down some of the big picture things you learned during shadowing the physician and be sure to exclude any patient identifying information. What kind of patients did you see? What did you like or dislike about the experience or the specialty? Did you get to perform any procedures? This can be handy when you are writing up your AMCAS experiences months later. Try to ask all of your questions at the end of the visit after the patient has left the room. It is rude to speak unless requested to do so during the appointment and might unduly frighten the patient should it be a serious topic. As a pre-med, you will most definitely have questions. Ask them! It shows that you are interested and engaged. They might even invite you to do some research with them if they have a project and a spot open.
It is common practice to send a thank you email or note to the physician after you shadow. Doing this can also help them remember you if you ask for a letter of recommendation later. If you want to shadow anywhere else in the department or hospital, ask that physician for an in person or email introduction. This can make it easier for you to get in the door of another specialty and skip the paperwork for another institution. Also be open to shadowing other health professionals such as Physician Associates (PA), Nurse Practitioners (NP), or nurses. This can be helpful on interview day to answer the question, “Why MD/DO?” because you have experience with some of the other options. Be sure to write down the names and contact information of everyone you shadowed so that you can contact them later or to document on your application.
Physician shadowing is a right of passage for all medical students and I hope these tips can help make your experience great. Don’t get discouraged if you are told no multiple times, there are plenty of doctors out there who are excited about mentoring students and helping them along the path to med school. Remember to soak up all you can and have fun. The next time you are in a doctor’s office, you could be the one running the show.
This article is part of a series of collaborative posts with Blueprint Prep, who just published one on how to make your pre-med experiences count for your med school application. And if you’re interested in using some of the best MCAT prep resources, take a look at the Sketchy X Blueprint Bundle, which combines the Sketchy course, Blueprint full-lengths, and an integrated study plan calendar into one great package.