Following a physician around while they are on the job for a certain number of hours is one of the basic requirements of a good application. This is called “clinical observation” or “shadowing.” Medical schools want to know that you’ve had sufficient exposure to what a physician’s job actually looks like. Interacting with a physician throughout a work day can open your eyes to the ups and downs of everyday practice that you aren’t able to consider while watching Grey’s Anatomy or simply speaking with a doctor.
Admissions committees want to be sure that you’ve explored the field enough before committing to make major sacrifices to become a physician. It usually takes tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt and giving up many years of your life to pursue training in this career. Having even one student drop out during training is a huge concern for medical schools. Sufficient shadowing partially addresses this by showing your investment in and familiarity with the field while exposing you to everyday medical practice.
How much do I shadow?
You have to record the number of hours that you spend shadowing and report them to schools when you apply. Having 20 hours of shadowing might not be enough to prove your investment in the field. Find a sweet spot. Shadow for enough hours that admissions cannot say “this student probably doesn’t know enough about the field.” But avoid shadowing so much that you’re wasting your time.
Schools may recommend different numbers or have different averages. Personally, I’d advise obtaining 80-120 hours. If you’re above 50 hours but the June 1st application submission date is approaching, you’ll benefit more from submitting your application early than getting 20 more hours. Below 50 may be pushing it for most schools.
With all that said, you’ll never impress any school with your clinical observation hours. There’s a point at which you’re probably wasting your time. At around 100 hours, I would argue that you’ve shown your interest and clinical exposure enough for any school. Beyond that, you’re better off using those hours doing something else like volunteering.
I guarantee an admission’s member has never thought: “WOW this student really knows how to follow a doctor around, we need them at our school!” On the other hand, I’m sure there have been students with so few hours that admissions questioned whether they really knew what practicing medicine looked like.
When should I shadow?
Unlike some of the other pre-med requirements, shadowing doesn’t have to be longitudinal. If you are reading this early in your medical school path, you can plan to shadow during your school breaks (summer, winter, 3-day weekends, etc.). This will allow you to focus on school and other more “high-yield” activities during the school year and complete shadowing over the span of a few days. It’s easier to complete full-day shadowing over break than during school. It won’t take very many full days to get enough shadowing.
How do you set up shadowing?
Another benefit of shadowing during school breaks is the possibility to go back home to visit family and friends. The best way to get meaningful shadowing experiences is through connections. It’s much easier to set up shadowing through someone you know.
If you’re like me and do not have many connections to physicians, there’s another simple way to shadow. Identify a physician in a particular specialty you’d be interested in shadowing by looking up providers near you on Google. Call their office and ask for the office manager. Ask if Dr. ____ allows student shadowing. If no, ask if any other doctors in the office allow student observation. If no again, move on. If yes, ask the office manager how to go about shadowing.
You’ll probably receive some paperwork. You’ll need to find out what to wear, where to go, and how long you can stay. On average, 1 out of 3 cold call attempts worked out for me.
Who do I shadow?
Obviously, start by shadowing specialties that you find interesting. If you’re applying to a range of schools, it’s good to shadow a primary care physician (family practice, pediatrician, etc.). Many official school mission statements contain an emphasis on primary care specialties. It would be good to have some experience in that area before applying to any medical school.
Shadow a couple of different specialties. Only shadowing one physician can limit your perspective and medical schools know that. Shadowing a parent or family member isn’t bad but shouldn’t be your no.1 source of shadowing.
Letters of Recommendation
You’ll often hear that you need a physician letter of recommendation to get into medical school. In reality, very few MD (allopathic) schools list this as a requirement. Play it safe and obtain a letter of recommendation from a physician, of course, but don’t expect every school to ask you for one. If you’re applying to DO (osteopathic) medical schools, 99% of them want a letter from a DO physician.
Be upfront and clear about your desire to get a letter early on in your shadowing experience. Ask the physician if, at the end of your week/month/year shadowing experience, they might be willing to write you a strong letter of recommendation for medical school. There is no sense in asking for a letter if it’s not going to be strong. You don’t want to go through the entire shadowing experience hoping to get a letter and then when you ask at the end, the physician is too busy or unable to write a good one.