Because I had worked as a medical scribe for about 1100 hours by the time I applied to medical school, I decided that I probably did not need to shadow a physician outside of my work in the Emergency Room. However, since I was rejected from medical school, I decided to call the schools and ask for a file review so that I could see how to strengthen my application. One of the schools stated that I needed to have shadowed a doctor before applying. I told the admissions representative that I had worked as medical scribe for 11 months, but this experience was somewhat dismissed, and I was told to shadow before applying again. This was disappointing to hear, but I understand why some medical schools would like to see students shadow rather than scribe.
I worked for a medical scribe company that is well known in the growing medical scribe industry, but probably is not know to medical schools. Some students who have worked as medical scribes for other companies or for a private practice may have been poorly trained or had little exposure to patients. (I saw this while training some people who had worked as scribes before coming to us.) Furthermore, some scribes are only tele-scribes so they never actually are in the same room as the patient, or are actually medical transcribers but refer to themselves as scribes. Because of the wide variety of exposure scribes may receive, some medical schools feel working as a scribe gives premeds an inadequate view of medicine.
However, my scribe experience was amazing; I saw hundreds of patients of different acuity levels and worked with a large group of doctors and physician assistants who were more than willing to answer my questions and taught me a lot about medicine. Unfortunately medical schools seem not to care about that and are more concerned with semantics. (Obviously my GPA was an issue too, but this statement is based on their reaction to my extra-curricular activities.)
Becoming a medical scribe has been an easier for me than finding a doctor to shadow. Two years ago, I applied to be a medical scribe in Texas and heard back within a month or so. Once I was hired I was seeing patients and very involved in medicine. Finding a shadowing experience has taken more time. In fact, when I first moved from Texas to Virginia almost one year ago, I had tried to find a doctor to shadow. I was rejected a few times and then soon became busy at home and later, in class. I was too distracted to search again. But, after talking to that admissions representative in April, however, I was newly motivated to find a physician shadowing opportunity.
I am interested in applying to osteopathic medical schools. Many of the DO schools require students to shadow before applying. Some DO schools require a recommendation letter from any physician, such as NOVA. But, WCUCOM, and Western University prefer letters from a DO. Both scribing and shadowing are excellent opportunities to get to know a physician and ask for a recommendation letter. However, DO schools want students who truly understand and want to practice the osteopathic philosophy and osteopathic medicine. The first time I applied to medical school I had little exposure to the osteopathic philosophy although I had taken the time to research it. I did work with DOs but Emergency Medicine is not a great outlet to practice osteopathic manipulative treatment, one of the few features that differentiate DOs from MDs. I knew that if I was in an interview and asked why I was drawn to osteopathic medicine, I would have little to say beyond what I had read in books. (Repeating Andrew Taylor Still’s life story does not exude passion.) This is why I decided not to apply to DO schools the first time I applied. So, being rejected from medical school the first time around is somewhat of a blessing in disguise; now I have the opportunity to explore osteopathic medicine! MD schools do not mind if you have shadowed a DO rather than an MD, but DO schools prefer to see students who have shadowed a DO. Thus, I wanted to shadow a DO.
My career goal is family medicine and I am intrigued by osteopathic manipulative treatments. Finding a physician who practices OMT can be difficult, but I was able to find a few family physicians in my area.
Tools to find a physician to shadow
- Find-A-DO: The American Osteopathic Association has a database of AOA members which you can search by specialty, name, and/or location. Includes phone numbers, but may not be up-to-date.
- DoctorShadow.com: This new website has a list of facilities that allow students to shadow, listed by location. Requires you to create a username but is safe.
- Premed Club/Premed Adviser: Often your university’s premed club and/or your premed adviser will know of local physicians that allow you to shadow.
- Social networks: Occasionally you can find a physician on Twitter/Facebook/Linkedin that will allow you to shadow them.
- Friends/Family: Shadowing a family member is generally frowned upon, but use your friends and family to find your way to a non-relative physician.
- Volunteer organizations: Although rare, if you are a volunteer for a medical clinic and have developed a good rapport with the physicians there, you can ask them if they can refer you to someone who you can shadow.
- Hospitals: Occasionally, hospitals have organized shadowing programs. You can look on their website and if you can’t find any information, call Volunteer Services and ask them if any such programs exist.
How to ask to be a shadow
Who to ask
Physicians who own a private practice rather than physicians who work for a hospital group are more likely to be receptive to shadows. Choose a physician who practices the specialty which interests you most, but keep in mind that physicians whose specialty requires delicate procedures, such as OB/Gyn, may not want student-shadows in the room. Physicians who practice outpatient medicine are often more able to accommodate a shadow than those with inpatient practices.
Do your research
Before cold-calling doctors, make a list of all the physicians you want to call. Note which physicians are part of the same practice so that you don’t hang up and call the same place again sounding like a fool. This is very important because some practices have a strict no-shadowing policy (unless you are a medical student) because their malpractice insurance does not cover pre-med shadows. Once you know which practices do not allow shadows, you can mark multiple physicians off of your list.
Have your resume updated and ready-to-go. Some physicians like to see what you have done to assess your commitment to a career in medicine and to your application to medical school. Know your availability before you call and prepare to possibly have to meet the physician before you begin shadowing.
The best time to call a medical practice is as soon as it opens. After that, whoever answers the phone will be too cranky and busy to answer your request. When you call, if you receive an automated message, choose the option that states you are a current patient. This will allow you to speak directly to in-office staff. If you instead say that you are a new patient, you might be sent to an outsourced management company who may not know how to answer your question.
Do not ask to speak to the physician. Instead, state “Hello, I am a student and I want to shadow Dr. X. Do they allow students to shadow them?”
Be gracious and understanding
If a physician is on the fence about allowing you to shadow, be sure to sell yourself. Mention how responsible you are and that you understand that all patients will not want you in the room. If you have any medical volunteering or medical work experience that can help win them over. But, at the end of the day if they can’t take on a shadow, be appreciative and kind. Don’t try to bully your way to a shadowing position. If you are refused, don’t ask for a referral to another physician. Since you are calling the practice during the day, they are busy and don’t have time for that.
Sometimes the physician or staff will ask you to send your résumé before they approve you to shadow. If they ask you to do this, be sure to ask when you can call back to follow-up on the opportunity. If you forget to do this, call back in one week and ask if the physician has received your résumé.
Ask the right questions
If a physician says you can shadow, be sure to tell them you want a longitudinal experience. Medical schools don’t want to see that you shadowed one doctor for one week, they like to see that you were there for a longer period of time. You don’t need to shadow every day in order to get an understanding of medicine, but you can’t only shadow someone for one day either. Here is what you should ask once a shadowing experience has been arranged:
- Will I come in for a whole day or a half day?
- Should I wear professional wear or scrubs?
- If I have questions should I ask them at the end of the day or after each patient?
- Should I bring lunch to work? Is there a break for lunch?
- How early should I get to the practice before it opens?
- Will I be able to watch procedures or just the patient interview?
- Will I be able to come in on the same day each week or will the schedule change from week to week?
Being a good shadow
When I worked as a medical scribe, we occasionally had shadows in the Emergency Room. Here are some tips on being a good shadow. I learned these by listening to my doctors complain about their shadows!
- close the door when you walk in as long as no one is behind you
- don’t talk to the patient unless prompted by the physician
- if the physician introduces you, smile, wave, and say hi briefly
- don’t stand in the doorway and block the door from being closed or opened
- don’t stand in front of cabinets where materials needed for the patient visit are stored (such as tongue depressors, suture kits, etc.)
- keep up with the physician; if you for some reason lose your physician after a restroom break or snack break, don’t go into the room where the physician is–wait until they are done seeing the patient before joining them again
Keep track of your shadowing
The medical school application will ask you how many hours you have spent shadowing. Make sure you keep a detailed log of the days and hours you come to the practice so that you can report this accurately. You do not need to have the physician sign-off on the hours you have been there, but if you forget to do this, recalling the time you spent is a challenge.
I found a shadowing experience!
I used the Find-a-DO service provided by the AOA to find a doctor to shadow. I used the steps I outlined above and cold-called early in the morning when the practice first opened. This reminded me of my days doing marketing for a magazine because of the numerous rejections and wrong numbers. Once I called about a physician who no longer worked for the practice! I eventually found a local family medicine DO who practices OMT and has a very impressive work history. His wife worked in the office and was willing to convince him to let me shadow. I emailed my resume and followed up a week later but they hadn’t yet had time to make a decision. Suddenly life became crazy (death of family friend, etc.) and I was too distracted to even think about calling back about the shadowing experience.
Then, after I was accepted to the VCU postbac program I discovered that we will have the opportunity to do clinical rotations while in the program. I spoke with the coordinator and they stated that I would be able to do my rotation in family medicine. I have yet to hear more details about this program, but I think it will be an excellent opportunity. I still feel I have a lot to learn from the doctor I found, so I hope that I will find time to shadow him during the Fall semester. Once I learn more about the clinical rotations, I will be able to determine if I will have time to shadow him in addition to doing the clinical rotations.
In addition, the week before school starts, I am going to shadow neonatologists in the NICU at the Medical College of Virginia. I opted to do a four-day experience where I will go on Grand Rounds (~4 hours) and do a presentation on the last day.
I hope to find more shadowing experiences so that I can experience a variety of fields as well clock numerous hours. Medicine has so much variety, there is a lot to explore!