When I was ready to start obtaining clinical experience, I did everything the old-fashioned way. With no physicians in my immediate family or as friends, I had to search for opportunities. Whether it was searching for volunteer experiences or working in a medical office as a medical assistant or technician, what I enjoyed most was shadowing physicians of various specialties.
Shadowing is unique in that it provided me with the opportunity to observe, ask questions, and shape my personal definition of “physician”. There is not much that one can tell from one day of shadowing, but one day of observation beats one day of being completely clueless!
What is “shadowing”?
“Shadowing” is just a way of saying “following” a physician around while they are in their practice or hospital for a designated period of time. Shadowing is also a unique form of clinical experience in that it allows for the opportunity to see a day in the life of a physician. Some physicians will allow students to shadow for only one day, while some allow students to shadow for much longer. The time arrangements should be made clear especially if shadowing a physician in a hospital where you are technically considered a “visitor”.
How do I find a physician to shadow ?
When searching for physicians to shadow, I checked the following places:
- Google Maps
- Hospital Websites, under “Find a Physician”
- My health insurance website, under “Find a Physician”
- My alma mater’s Pre-Health Listserv
I made a list of physicians with the specialties I found interesting and began typing up a specific email to send each physician. The reason why I did this was because I was never successful in calling a medical office directly. I noticed that many of the secretaries had no idea what I meant by “shadowing”. Plus, it was very awkward (for me) to call a medical office and instead of making an appointment, I asked about shadowing a physician.
Many offices did not want pre-medical students wandering around and preferred medical students. This was not a setback because I found greater success in simply emailing physicians directly and explaining my interests as a pre-medical student. I sent emails to approximately 50 different physicians and had a positive response rate of 45%. The response rate was higher for physicians in academic settings, such as Residency Directors at local hospitals. I believe many of those physicians enjoy having students shadow them because they enjoy teaching. I also found that “younger” physicians (approximately 10-15 years out of medical school) were more likely to respond to emails. More experienced physicians (20+ years out of medical school) were 50/50 in their response rates.
What should I say in my email to a physician?
There are five (5) things to mention: name, year in school, major, purpose, and your contact information. I kept my emails short (4-5 sentences) because people are busy and have little time to read some autobiography or personal statement about a random person’s love of obstetrics or nephrology. I also noticed than many were responding to emails from their iPhones and I know that when I receive a long email on my iPhone, I prefer reading it later rather than “on-the-go”. Sometimes, unfortunately, “later” becomes never.
I found that if my email was succinct and I included my resume, I received more responses. It is really a personal decision of how to ask for an opportunity.
Sample Email to a Physician
Subject: Shadowing Opportunity – Request from a hopeful Pre-Med Student!
Message: Dear Dr. [Name Here],
My name is [Name Here] and I am a/an [Major] [Year in School] from [High School/University]. I am very interested in shadowing you because I am applying to [college or medical school] and I am interested in or specializing in [Specialty Here]. I have included my resume in order to provide you with the opportunity to see my academic and clinical experiences. Feel free to contact me by email or [Phone]. Thank you for your time!
That was the email I sent to a resident director and within a few hours, I received a response! I also sent this email early morning because many people read their emails first thing in the morning and when your message pops up, it’s much more likely to be read.
What about rejection?
Sometimes, no one responds. Who cares? If one person does not respond, I knew that I had to keep trying. The one thing I did make the mistake of doing was emailing physicians at the wrong time. For example, emailing a resident director and expecting a quick response between March and July, is a mistake. As a result, I sent out emails in the Fall and received many responses around that time.
I found a physician to shadow, I have the date set, now what?
Research. Do your research prior to shadowing. If you are a high school student with little to no experience in medicine besides watching Grey’s Anatomy or Discovery Health, you’re not expected to know much or have an answer to anything you might be asked. However, in my opinion, it is terribly boring/awkward to shadow a physician without asking insightful questions. Ask them about their time as a pre-med student, what inspired their interest in medicine, what interests them most about their specialty, what does their typical work day consist of, what are some of their favorite experiences in medicine, any funny encounters? Things like that.
As a pre-med/post-bacc student the questions can become more specific especially if one has clinical experience and has an idea of what to ask–while remaining HIPAA compliant! If, for example, you’re shadowing a cardiothoracic surgeon and you know prior to shadowing which surgery they are performing, ask something about the surgery. Read about it in medical journals. If you’re unsure about something you read, ask. My most positive experience while shadowing a physician was when I asked questions not only of the physicians but of the nurses, assistants, and technicians. I learned so much shadowing a group of interventional cardiologists and their staff. I also asked if I was allowed to talk to the patients and ask them about their experiences.
Overview of How to Shadow a Physician
- Do some research and make a list of specialties you find interesting.
- Use multiple resources to find physicians: Google, Google Maps, Hospital Websites, etc.
- Write a succinct email! Physicians are busy people!
- Determine the length of the shadowing period early.
- Do not worry about rejection, keep trying other physicians!
- Ask questions! Not just of physicians but also their medical staff.