Pre-Med: How to Prepare for Shadowing

You’ve done the research and doctor outreach, and you’re getting ready for your very first day of shadowing a physician. Get ready to peek behind the curtain of what patient care looks like from the point of view of a clinician. Shadowing a doctor is your opportunity to learn about the practice of medicine, what patient interactions look like, and what a typical day looks like in what could be your chosen specialty after medical school. Applying to medical school is a decision you’ll be building toward for several years, and it’s a good idea to know what you’re getting yourself into. Of course, you’re not going to be practicing medicine yourself, but you’ll want to come prepared for your day or days of pre-med shadowing so you can represent yourself (and your school) well and learn as much as you can. Here are a few do’s and don’ts for the day-of.

  • DO make sure you have all your documents in order.

    For some shadowing opportunities, you might not have to do much more than show up at the designated time. Larger hospitals, certain clinical settings, or more “official” shadowing programs may have you fill out paperwork, release forms, or have you bring in proof of immunizations, etc. Have all documents with you, as well as valid forms of identification. If these things are required, you’ll get ample time to sort them out before your shadowing time.

  • DON’T be late

    Also known as: Pretend you are on a job interview for your dream job. All the same rules apply to your physician shadowing time. Remember that a doctor’s or medical student’s time is valuable, and spending their time with you is a great service. Treat it as such. Show up a few minutes early to go through any final paperwork check or security protocol, but avoid showing up too early and before the doctor is ready for you.

  • DO dress professionally.

    If you’re not sure what the dress code is in the clinical setting where you’ll be doing your physician shadowing, just ask. Plan on dressing business casual, at least. Some hospitals or clinics may have rules, for example, keeping visible tattoos covered, or closed-toe shoes. You might spend a lot of the day on your feet, so plan on wearing professional but comfortable shoes.

  • DON’T use your phone.

    Keep your phone off, or on silent mode, throughout your shadowing hours. Most hospitals have rules about cell phone usage on patient floors. Not only that, you want to pay attention and be engaged in the present. You should also avoid taking photos where patients might be, and posting about patients on social media. This may run afoul of hospital and clinic rules.

  • DO bring something to take notes with.

    Bring a notepad and pens so you can take notes about your experience, jot down questions you might want to ask later, or write down things you want to look up. This will help you stay present and allow you to reflect on your experience later.

  • DO remember your role as an observer.

    When you’re rounding with your assigned physician or seeing patients, remember that you are there to watch and learn, not to necessarily participate. You will be introduced to patients and the patients will likely be asked whether it’s ok for you to be there to observe. As a prospective medical student, you may also be asked to participate in patient care. If so, ask for permission before you touch a patient, move them, etc. You will also have to follow hygiene protocols like using gloves, for example, or the hand sanitizer. Your number one concern is the patient in front of you. As such, make sure that everything you say and do in the patient’s space keep them comfortable. If you have questions, save them for later. You don’t want to accidentally alarm a patient by asking something the doctor hasn’t covered.

  • DON’T ignore HIPAA rules.

    The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, rules mean that you can’t discuss a patient’s condition or care with anyone other than the patient’s medical team. That includes your friends and family. If you’re not sure what the exact rules are, ask. This means you will need to be extra careful when sharing your experience on social media.

  • DO send a thank-you note.

    In addition to being gracious to everyone you will work with on your shadowing day, including nursing staff, administrative staff, and maintenance staff, you’ll want to send a thank-you note to the doctor or team of doctors you got to observe that day. If you wish to continue the shadowing relationship or gain more clinical experience, you can mention it if it feels appropriate. Building a relationship with a physician that demonstrates your professionalism, discretion, empathy, and curiosity is not just a great experience, it can also provide you with strong mentorship and a letter of recommendation you can be proud of.