How to Shadow a Doctor: Pre-Medical Tips 101

Briefly, before we get to the post: it’s reached the point where many South Florida doctors are protesting to show how crucial getting the vaccine is. According to Kerry Sanders reporting on the ground in Florida, “The frustrated doctors want people to ‘ignore the nonsense and the absurdities that you’re hearing people say at public meetings and recognize the value of what a vaccine will do… 85 percent of the ICU beds in the state are full.’”

Please, if you haven’t already, do get the vaccine. Ensure the safety of yourself and your loved ones and all of us by doing so.

Shadowing: (verb; ‘to shadow ‘) The most critical thing a medical school applicant can do to understand a typical day in a doctor’s life and express interest in and commitment to the medical field to admissions committees.

In this post, I will share what I learned after shadowing many doctors in their clinics and the OR (operating room). I’m also going to share HOW to secure a shadowing position and some basic things that you probably already know but are essential to reiterate.

I remind my fellows, residents and medical students that what we do is a privilege. People let us into the most intimate aspects of their lives, and they look to us to help guide them through very complex and delicate situations.

Shikha Jain, MD

Why am I sharing all of this?

Because when I was starting out shadowing a doctor, I was looking all over the internet for a guide like this but could not find one. So, fellow premeds, please enjoy the following tips!

Post Outline 🩺

1. Shadowing Myths

2. Shadowing in the Clinic

3. Shadowing in the OR

4. How Do I Get a Shadowing Opportunity?

5. Sabine’s Final (Random) Shadowing Tips

Shadowing Myths 🩺

Myth #1. Shadowing a doctor is more than just observing.

False. All you CAN do, legally and ethically, is observe and be as indiscreet as possible.

Myth #2. Shadowing a doctor is boring.

False. Just because there’s not much you can tangibly do for the doctor or their patients does not mean you can’t still have a great time! That means if you take it with gratitude that you found this opportunity and the doctor is willing to have you around, make the best out of it. Bring a notebook, ask questions, take notes between patients, not in front of them, and prepare some questions ahead of time. You will get out of the experience what you put in. You might be pleasantly surprised by all that you’ll learn.

Myth #3. You don’t need to shadow a doctor if you have a job that enables you to be around doctors.

False.

While it is great to have a clinical job and gain exposure in that way, it is a much different experience to shadow doctors because that becomes the bulk of your time. If you have a job in a clinical setting, most of your time is preoccupied with fulfilling your duties. On the other hand, as a clinical shadow, you have to be as discreet yet curious as possible and absorb as much knowledge as you can. Plus, a bonus of pure shadowing is the exposure you can get in different specialties.

Myth #4. Because of the pandemic, there are no opportunities for me to shadow a doctor.

False!

The pandemic has undoubtedly been stressful, especially for healthcare workers. Fortunately, there are new and adaptable ways of gaining clinical exposure and learning what it means to be a physician. For example, check out e-shadowing/telemedicine.

3 E-Shadowing Experiences:
https://www.prehealthshadowing.com/
https://virtualshadowing.com/
https://medicalschoolhq.net/eshadowing/

Tips for Shadowing in the O.R.🩺

OR = Operating Room. There are many similarities to shadowing in the Clinic, but definitely, a few new things to point out.

Avoid the sterile field. (!!!)

You’ll quickly realize that surgery (and medicine overall) is a team sport in the OR. There’s the surgical tech, anesthesiologist, surgeon, nurse, and the pre-op and post-op transport team (I’m sure I missed a few others). Nevertheless, the surgical tech will have a tray with many instruments on it that have just been cleaned and sterilized. That means stay away from it because you might have the potential to contaminate the tools. If the surgeon or tech uses it during surgery, that could cause an infection for the patient. Let’s avoid all of this and stay far away from the “sterile field,” aka the “surgical-tech-only” zone.

(My first time in the OR, I was heading a bit too close to the sterile field, and luckily, the surgeon informed me before I got too close. Phew.)

Prepare for the procedures.

Review a bit of the procedure beforehand if you know what surgeries or procedures you will be observing! There is no need to memorize the protocol. Still, a general understanding of what you’ll be watching will help you ask the right questions (and maybe even impress the surgeon with your knowledge – bonus!)

Get to know the other people in the room.

Before or after the surgery, introduce yourself and ask their names. They will be excellent resources if you have questions or comments, and you’ll be happy you can remember their names.

Don’t be distracting.

It’s pretty awesome when some surgeons operate with music in the background or like to chat during the surgery, recounting their favorite memory from their training and so on. That being said, a lot of times, they need silence to concentrate. If you’re unsure, only talk when talked to.

Tips for Shadowing in the Clinic🩺

If you aren’t in the operating room (OR), you’re probably in the Clinic. By Clinic, I mean a hospital, department, outpatient facility, or Clinic whose primary purpose is sports medicine, rehabilitation, or wellness.

Give it your all.

As I’ve said a bunch of times already in this post, you’ll get out what you put in. So, if you employ all of these tips and doing so with a smile and enthusiasm, you are sure to get a lot out of your experience.

Help wherever you can.

If you are shadowing for more than a few days, you’ll have the opportunity to pick up on nonverbal cues. For example, when I shadowed an ophthalmologist, I was able to anticipate when he needed the “eye model” based on his body language and voice changes (sounds crazy, but I hope. you know what I’m talking about) and would get it for him.

Another example is I noted he often lost his pen. I started keeping two on me so that I had one ready for him, and little things like this make a difference in efficiency for the physician.

Get to know the other healthcare staff.

Write down their names (so you don’t forget), befriend them, and learn more about their job. As you’ll quickly realize, healthcare is a team sport. The other staff members are just as influential in the patient visit as the physician.

General Tips for Shadowing🩺

Take notes and ask questions.

Suppose you show up with prepared questions and take notes on things you learned during the procedure. In that case, it will not only impress the physician, but it is an absolute privilege for you to get to know them in their area of expertise. Please do not take this opportunity for granted, and get curious and attentive! Like I said before, you’ll get out of it what you put in.

Dress appropriately.

If you’re shadowing in the Operating Room: Closed-toe shoes, hair controlled (in a ponytail, braid, bun, etc.), and wearing the appropriate PPE (scrubs, hair cap, gloves, mask) before going into the room.

Instead, you’re in the Clinic: You can’t go wrong with a nice button-up, blouse, or sweater (@ladies) and some pants that aren’t jeans or leggings. If you need some ideas for reference, you want to look like you’re going to a LinkedIn photoshoot 😛

Be on time early.

And by on time, I mean early. Late is showing up when you’re supposed to. I know this sounds harsh, but let me explain. Once, I remember being told by the physician’s staff to show up at 7 am because the first surgery starts then. I even confirmed the time with the surgeon himself. Unfortunately, I did show up at 7 am but had missed a surgery that began 30 minutes prior. It wasn’t scheduled; it was spontaneous and was a fascinating case! Since then, I started showing up 30 minutes before the “set” time was and, if it’s too early, I will entertain myself by reading

How to Get a Shadowing Opportunity🩺

Cold email.

Doctors are humans, too. And they’ve likely been in a similar situation.

Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly share where you go to school, any medically related experiences you’ve had, and your goals. Be courteous and professional. Many doctors welcome opportunities to talk to students, so ask other doctors if you get turned down.

Ask people you know.

If you have a relationship with your doctor(s) or know any doctors, start asking them. You can also ask your teachers, professors, and premed or academic advisors if they know any doctors that other students have shadowed in the past. If you’re in college, leverage any relationships your school may have with a medical school or hospital on campus.

Last-Minute Reminders🩺

Bring snacks!

You’re going to get hungry! Trust me. Bring that granola bar. Do it.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Your feet are going to W O R K. You’ll likely be standing for hours (good practice for the future 😛 ). The last thing you’ll want is uncomfortable flats with absolutely no arch support or brand new sneakers that will ultimately give you blisters. Show your feet some love and be able to focus all of your energy and attention on the shadowing experience!

I hope this article helped you get the foundation of what shadowing a physician is all about.

Good luck, have fun, and happy shadowing!

Have you checked out my recent post about the two types of medical doctors in the U.S.?

A good doctor treats the disease. A great doctor treats the patient who has the disease.

William Osler

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