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The Ultimate Guide to Shadowing a Doctor Next Semester

The Ultimate Guide to Shadowing a Doctor Next Semester

The exact steps Alice used to find local shadowing opportunities with ease.

Alice graduated with a major in human developmental and regenerative biology and a minor in global health and health policy. Her main extracurriculars included dance, the health advocacy program, and stem cell biology research. After her undergraduate career Alice decided to take two gap years. In her first year she backpacked through Spain on the Michael C. Rockefeller Fellowship and in her second year she worked in thoracic oncology clinical research at UCLA. Alice will begin her enrollment at Stanford Medical School in the Fall of 2016.

Though liability and lack of connections are often cited as the primary obstacles for shadowing a physician as a pre-med student in the United States, Alice was able to overcome those hurdles by seeking shadowing opportunities through her professors. In the following interview, Alice outlines her approach in detail.

Can you tell us a little bit about your shadowing experiences as an undergraduate?

My most meaningful shadowing experiences were through my professors, and liability was not so much an issue because they were so eager to share their work. I guess that comes from being a professor as well as someone who sees patients; to them, teaching is teaching no matter where it happens (i.e. even if it's at a patient's bedside and not in a lecture hall). Many MDs who see patients also teach courses at a partnering academic institution, so one tip that might help pre-meds is for them to look through their course catalog for professors who teach upper-division science courses. These students don't necessarily have to take the course, but it's more likely that a physician who teaches a course is also okay with taking an undergrad around the hospital/clinic. These kinds of experiences are educational in nature, so professors are more comfortable showing their work to students and liability doesn't become such an obstacle.

Even if professors don’t have time to allow an undergrad to shadow, pre-meds should consider asking that professor if s/he has colleagues at the local hospital (if it’s affiliated with the university) who may be willing to pass on a contact email.

What were some of the primary benefits of shadowing a doctor? Why is it important?

Shadowing has some key benefits that are essential for any pre-med: (1) it helps you develop a realistic sense of medicine (2) allows you to determine if you are willing to make the large personal and financial investment necessary when entering medical school and (3) it provides insight and experience you can share in your application/interviews. For these reasons, it's an essential part of your application that medical schools will expect you to have.

Your clinical experiences often come up in the medical school application process (i.e. in your personal statement, secondary essays, and interviews) because medical schools are looking for applicants who are not only committed to medicine, but also well-informed in their decision. It’s easy for anyone to say they “want to be a doctor when they grow up,” complete with that image of the pristine white coat, but it’s a much more genuine, realistic, and believable statement if you can recall specific examples from clinical environments – OR - say having seen firsthand what real life as a doctor is like. Thus, having shadowing experience is a strong, necessary piece of evidence that medical schools need to be convinced you fully understand what you are committing to.

Atlantis Project Commentary

Observing a doctor’s typical day enhances your understanding of the medical profession and improves self-awareness. Gaining an exposure to medicine and its various specialties can help you better understand what it truly means to devote your career to medicine.

How do I respond to the site of blood? Does the smell of sick patients or being on my feet all day bother me? Am I energized and impassioned by the physician-patient interaction or am I more suited for a research setting? These are important questions to answer as you discover whether the medical field is right for you.


How do you find out if a professor is also a practicing physician? How would you go about finding this information?

It's a process of winnowing: (1) look for professors with an MD (or MD/PhD, although usually the dual-degree professors only do research). Usually if a college is a part of a university that includes a medical school, professors with MDs may teach upper-level science or health/bioethics courses. (2) Google that professor's name, along with your institution (chances are if s/he's a practicing physician, their hospital/clinic will be another search result). Another option is to email him/her directly (see below).

What would you say are the most common courses that a professor MD would teach at an academic institution?

1. By far the most likely will be graduate student/medical student- level (i.e. upper-level) courses that are typically for graduate/medical students but will allow undergraduate enrollment as well.
2. Physiology/Anatomy (and other specialized biology courses that are not the typical general biology, cell bio, molecular bio premed courses)
3. Health/Public health/Nutrition

For premeds who don't have direct access to MD Professors at their university, how would you recommend they begin their approach? Should they look at the faculty/staff page of every local academic institution or browse a local hospital website and look for a doctor's resume instead? 

It will likely be more effective for them to go through the local hospital website for practicing physicians; it takes much more work to go through the faculty page at an academic institution looking for practicing physicians. Sometimes physicians outside of the academic realm are thrilled to be contacted by a pre-med (i.e. they miss the chance to interact with and mentor students), so it's a total win-win if the pre-med can find a doctor directly through the hospital. 

Atlantis Project Commentary

Another commonly-overlooked method of securing a shadowing position is to ask a personal physician that you have previously seen. This includes your primary care doctor or someone who has performed any prior surgeries/procedures. Even if they are unable to provide a spot, there is a good chance they know other doctors (in a variety of medical branches) that may be more amenable taking on a pre-med. 

If you’re not comfortable with this approach, another option is to ask one of your health advisers or peers on campus if they would be willing to introduce you to a physician or someone in their network that might be able help you along the path of finding a doctor to shadow. 


How do you approach a doctor with a request to shadow? Email? Phone call? In person approach?

I'd advise against going in person; it seems very forward as a first point of contact and can create unnecessary pressure to respond immediately on the spot. An email is most appropriate in terms of giving the physician a respectable distance and time frame. In the email, you can suggest a phone call or in-person meeting at their discretion. Here's a template:

1: Introduce yourself, saying you're a pre-med at ______ College or University. 
2: Explain you read about his/her course/research/position and that you're very interested in learning more about his/her work by shadowing.  (Start by asking for just a morning/ an afternoon; do not immediately ask for a long-term commitment like a semester. If you feel a mutually strong connection, then you can ask for that in person later on).
3: Include something along the lines of, "I can imagine you may have liability concerns with regard to undergraduate shadowing. If it helps, I can bring a print out (copy?) of my up-to-date immunizations and a statement that I'm aware of and adhering to HIPAA guidelines."
4. Reiterate your gratitude and that you're available by phone or an in-person meeting if he/she feels more needs to be discussed before shadowing.

Atlantis Project Commentary

When requesting to shadow a physician, remember that you’re asking the doctor for a huge favor. They are already juggling numerous delicate obligations/duties; allowing a pre-med student to shadow, while very rewarding for most doctors, only adds another layer of responsibility.

Follow Alice’s template above, but make sure to keep your email communication short and simple. Physicians are some of the busiest people on the planet and they do not have time to read a novel email or continue a long, back and forth email chain. Anything longer than a few sentences may be passed off. 

Minimize the “lack of time” obstacle for the shadowing physician by accommodating their work schedule if possible. Be flexible and willing to shadow when it is most convenient for them.

When emailing a new physician, you can increase your trustworthiness by attaching a copy of your resume and a prewritten acknowledgement of your adherence to HIPPAA like this one. If you don’t know what HIPPAA is, this is a good place to start.

When meeting the physician, presenting yourself in a professional and respectable manner can expedite the acclamation process. This includes being concrete and passionate in your desires for wanting to shadow a particular physician, clarifying that you are aware of your limitations as a pre-med (HIPAA), displaying strong interpersonal skills, and being appropriately dressed when meeting the physician. If a student has successful previous shadowing/volunteer/research hospital experiences, this could also be highlighted when getting to know a new physician. 


What advice can you offer for maximizing a shadowing experience?

Maximizing each shadowing/volunteer opportunity is essential – it’s not enough to just show up. Your application essays and interviews will reveal how engaged you were within each experience. If medicine is something you are truly passionate about, showing effort, passion, and engagement in the hospital can go a long way towards increasing your chances of being accepted to medical school. To do so, students should:

1.    Pursue active learning instead of passive absorbing:

  • Two pre-med students can be exposed to the exact same shadowing or clinical experience but come out with radically different lessons learned. Even if they  are with the same physician, see the same patients, and observe the same procedures for the same number of hours,  admissions committees will judge each experience solely off of the description you provide. Make sure you are constantly looking, observing, learning, and asking in a professional capacity (while of course maintaining appropriate professionalism for the environment you are in). If you spend your entire day standing in the corner sending texts or scrolling through social media on your phone, it will show when it comes time to apply.
  • Write down names of unfamiliar medical terminology/procedures/techniques you did not get a chance to ask your mentor about. Look these up later (even Wikipedia is enough to give you a sufficient understanding).
  • If the situation and timing are appropriate, absolutely do try to ask your mentor your questions/clarifications on the spot. This will show your interest and engagement, hopefully allowing you to form a strong bond with your physician (especially over an extended period of time). If everything goes well over time, this could lead to the physician writing a strong letter of recommendation for you!
  • Write down a succinct summary of any particularly interesting/touching case that you encounter in the hospital. Perhaps you were impressed by how a physician calmed down an upset/angry patient. Was there a particular technique, technology or medication that helped the patient that was not available 5, 10, or 20 years ago? Maybe you were touched by the way a nurse interacted with a patient’s family at his/her bedside. Keep a running log of phrases/details that will help you retain these moments when applying down the road.

2.    Approach Questions from Multiple Angles

  • Patient-physician relationships
    •  How does your physician interact with the patient and their families? Non-verbal communication such as eye contact and hand placement are commonly overlooked factors that can go a long ways towards comforting patients.
  • Hospital resources/practices
    • Does your shadowing physician have to gain permission from a department head before s/he makes a treatment option? What about in the case of an expensive surgery? Are the most recent technologies and facilities available? How does this affect patient care?
  •  Physician Procedures/Practices
    • Was there a particular procedure that didn’t make sense or that was generally confusing? How does the physician discern whether or not a patient is truly in need of a certain prescription? 

Any Concluding Thoughts?

It's common (but dangerous) to lose sight of the importance of shadowing - namely, the depth of the experience - and instead focus on accumulating hours to impress medical schools. The “quality of quantity” cliché is relevant to many parts of your medical school application. Ultimately, what matters far more than the number listed on your application is how you present your shadowing experiences. In that sense, shadowing will help you get into medical school because it is something you should intrinsically have an interest for, not something you feel you need to "get out of the way" or “check off of a list.” If you can keep that attitude in mind, you will avoid time-wasting, menial shadowing experiences and instead search for ones that are meaningful to you. That said, you may be wondering how to tell if a shadowing experience is meaningful or not - in general, if you find yourself feeling bored, seeing the same procedure on repeat, and/or wondering if you time would be better spent shadowing in a different specialty or with a different physician, that's a good sign you should move on to another shadowing opportunity. That being said, do not feel as if everything will be laid out for you. It is your duty to pique the physician’s interest (without seeming overbearing) and creating an open environment to maximize learning. Only in rare circumstances are doctors unwilling to help – they wouldn’t have allowed you into their workplace if this was the case!

Next Steps

Shadowing a physician during your college years is an integral part of becoming a physician. When undergraduate factual knowledge is combined with experiential shadowing, students are much better poised for the medical journey. If you found this article to be helpful, please share it with your friends.