Finding Clinical Experience Opportunities

You block off an entire Sunday afternoon to tackle the beast that is the AMCAS—the centralized medical school application. You’re clicking through the online form, filling in the boxes until you get to the page titled “Volunteering and Shadowing.” You stop there. Are you worried that when it comes time to document your exposure to the medical field, you’ll feel like your clinical experience hasn’t adequately prepared you to fill out your medical school application? Are you looking to gain more first-hand insight into the workings of the career to which you’ve pledged your life?
One of the most important parts of your medical school application is the proof that you’ve got some experience in the field, that you know what it takes to work in medicine, and that you’re someone who is going to make it to the other side ready to practice—not burned out and cynical because you didn’t know what you were getting into.

Volunteer Clinical Experience

Completing volunteer work and shadowing to gain clinical experience in the medical field is a crucial part of your medical school application, and students tend to worry that they haven’t done enough of either. It can be difficult to find avenues for gaining this experience, especially in a way that sets your volunteer work apart from that of your fellow applicants.
The following is a list of options for shadowing or volunteer experience that will enhance your medical school application and give you a head start on practicing medicine.
  • Volunteer at a medically-focused camp for children

    Camps exist across the nation for children afflicted with life-altering illnesses, ranging from cancer to diabetes. They provide a safe structured environment for children battling these diseases to have fun and learn from others going through the same struggles. For many of these children, the camp environment can turn out to be a lifesaver, keeping them grounded through their treatment and giving them an outlet to deal with the complex emotions that come along with having a chronic illness.
    Pre-med students interested in joining the medical field, just like you, often work as counselors at these camps. Medical students are also typically among the camp volunteers. So, if you’re able to get involved as an undergraduate, you can not only gain clinical experience caring for sick children and working with the camp physicians, but you’ll also have the opportunity to talk with the medical students and learn from their more seasoned perspectives on the medical school application process and the profession.
    These camps often take a lighthearted and fun approach to the diseases they sponsor. For example, Camp Wannaklot, the camp for children with bleeding disorders, uses Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” as a theme song (no lie). Volunteering at these camps can not only offer you the clinical experience you’re looking for, but it can also transform your career path, perhaps piquing an interest you didn’t even know you had.

  • Volunteer at an assisted living center

    Residents of assisted living centers are usually grateful for projects and performances designed to entertain and reach out to them. Yet pre-med students often overlook this as an opportunity to gain exposure to the medical field. These residents are not patients in the strictest sense, but if you volunteer your time and voice your interest in the medical field, the nurses and staff that run the center will likely be more than happy to teach you about geriatric medicine and palliative care. What’s more, these two fields are sorely in need of medical professionals. Gaining some experience in these areas early on will be extremely helpful when interviewing for jobs once you enter the medical field.
    Don’t draw the line at medically-focused volunteer work. Assisted living centers also have musical performances for the residents, fitness activities, and arts and crafts. Work up a proposal for something fun for the residents to take part in and present it to the director. This will show initiative and, more importantly, your creativity and devotion to the patients beyond merely gaining a line on your medical school application. You might be surprised by what the experience gives you.

  • Raise funds for a medically-related cause

    Between Relay for Life, the AHA Heartwalk, and various local organizations, fundraising opportunities for medical charities abound. By joining such causes, pre-med students can gain meaningful clinical experience and bolster their medical school application while also serving the community.
    As you volunteer your time, express your desire to work directly with both disease survivors and current patients. Offer to coordinate survivor outreach, which will give you the chance to talk with and learn from those who have battled serious illnesses and won. Help connect survivors to one another to share their stories. You might also offer to work with the families of those who have lost loved ones to disease. Remember, joining these causes isn’t just about securing donations—it’s an often overlooked way to connect meaningfully with those affected by disease.

More Intensive Clinical Opportunities

There are many jobs available in the healthcare field, but due to time constraints and limited training, medical school applicants often restrict themselves to a smaller pool of opportunities. Today, we’ll focus on clinical opportunities that require more time and training, and are therefore ideal for a pre-med who is taking a gap year or is looking for a medically-focused summer job.
Regardless of which type of clinical experience you pursue, remember that the most important factor is that you are able to work with patients and providers in a professional, standardized healthcare setting. Check out the following pre-med positions that you can pursue with just a little extra time and training:
  • Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)

    Many students become EMTs through their college and end up volunteering or working for their school’s ambulance service. Others are certified on their own and work for the local fire department or ambulance company staffing the medical service there.
    While the environment in which an EMT works may differ from traditional, hospital-based medicine, the position still offers valuable learning opportunities through crucial patient interaction and hands-on medical treatment.
    An EMT certification requires the completion of an EMT class and the passing of both a practical skills assessment and NREMT Computer-Based Test (CBT). These can generally be completed over the course of a semester or during the summer, and once you’ve received your license to work in the state, you can begin to look for employment at your school or local area.

  • Emergency Room Scribe

    The basis of good medical care is a thorough and well-documented patient history & physical (H&P). Physicians can save time and see more patients if they have someone writing down their notes as they go through the appointment, which is where the ER scribe comes into play.
    An ER scribe’s duty is to work with a physician and gather their findings on the patient’s chart or into an electronic medical record (EMR). They are expected to be familiar with medical terminology and must be capable of making the H&P coherent and easy to follow.
    Most ER scribes sign up with a company who trains them and then dispatches them to hospitals for assignment. While you do not directly treat any patients, being able to work with a physician while they treat the patient is a great experience.

  • Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)

    A CNA is involved in many tasks, ranging from providing care for patients in hospitals, caring for residents of a nursing facility, visiting clients in a private home, or simply providing general medical care to those who cannot adequately care for themselves.
    CNA license requirements differ from state-to-state, so it is important to do research based on your location. Generally, you must pass an accredited course, a CNA exam, a practical exam, and have some amount of on-duty experience while being supervised.
    While a CNA’s job will not involve any complex medical procedures, you are directly responsible for patient care and will be working with other medical providers. This will provide you valuable insight into working with patients and functioning in an actual healthcare setting.

  • Medical Assistant

    Medical assistants help nurses and physicians work more efficiently by taking care of administrative duties, scheduling appointments, arranging for laboratory tests, handling billing, and even acting as scribes during appointments.
    While medical assistants used to work exclusively in clinics, many are now being employed in hospitals as additional help and in private practices as scribes and chaperones. There are no definitive requirements to become a medical assistant, but there are organizations that will certify medical assistants to their standards. The American Association of Medical Assistants (AAMA) requires applicants to complete a course and take an examination before being accredited. Similar organizations include the American Medical Technologists (AMT) and the National Center for Competency Testing.

Get out there and start immersing yourself in the medical field. Only through hands-on clinical experience can you be sure you’re pursuing a career in medicine for the right reasons.

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