Everything you need to know about clinical shadowing

May 15 / Deborah Gutman
Why shadow a physician or a PA? Most professional schools are going to expect that you have spent time shadowing. Shadowing is a way for someone to closely observe someone at work doing their job. Why would you want to do that? So you can understand what the job is about before you dedicate tons of time and money pursuing it as a career. I would say that it is pretty important to have some understanding of what the job looks like in real life before you do that. In addition, you should try to understand the scope of practice – there are lots of different ways and places to be a physician or a PA and understanding the differences will be helpful in trying to understand how you might fit into that bigger picture of a career.

How do you find someone to shadow?
  • Network and start with the people you know. Do you have friends or relatives who are in healthcare? Are they doctors or PAs? Go ahead and ask them if you can shadow them or if they know someone you can shadow.
  • Leverage your school’s alumni office. Reach out to your prehealth office to see if they know alumni who have offered to let people shadow.
  • Ask a clinician you or a family member have seen as a patient. Who is your primary care provider or your pediatrician? Show your interest in their career and ask them at your next visit.
  • Are you doing clinical research or volunteering? Are you around clinicians? Ask them if you can shadow them or if they have connections to people you can shadow.
  • Search online directories. Choose DO has an online directory of osteopathic physicians you can reach out to. Look up your local medical association and reach out to see if they might have a shadowing program.
  • Try your local hospital. Sometimes they have formal summer programs that include an observership or shadowing experience.
  • Cold call, email or walk into offices. This one is the scariest but students have done this with success. This is particularly useful if you don’t have transportation because you can just walk your local neighborhood and see what types of healthcare offices are in walking distance and go in and ask! You never know who might say yes and the worst thing they can say is no.
Now that you got someone to say yes what do you do?
  • If they can’t have you in the office (due to COVID) or other reasons you can always ask for an informational interview. That is a short (20-30 minute) meeting via Zoom or on the phone where you can ask questions about their career trajectory and day to day experiences. Prepare for the interview by learning about the person and preparing questions.
  • In the office on your shadowing day be strategic and keep the visit short and sweet. No more than 2 hours and consider (or ask) when a good time window would be where you will see what their life is like but it won’t be so busy you can’t speak to them. Understand the expectations – the dress code, your behavior, etc. And if you don’t know….ask. That way you can actually be helpful. Is it okay if you get the patient’s blankets or show them to the bathroom? Or do they expect you to not engage with the patients? Find out when a good time is for your questions so that you don’t interrupt. Will the clinician introduce you or should you introduce yourself?
  • Be curious and learn about the specialty and what types of patients and clinical conditions you might see. Take notes during your visits about medical terms or treatment plans that you hear. If there is an opportunity ask questions, if not, go home and look things up. You can always email a follow up question when you send your thank you.
  • Leverage the team in the office. If the PA or physician gets busy, or even if they don’t, learn about the other members of the team and what they do. Be kind to everyone (that should go without say). Consider asking if you can follow around other team members so you can understand everyone’s role.
  • Send a thank you and stay in touch. Make sure you say thank you to everyone. Also make an effort to stay in touch in case another opportunity arises to shadow more. Build that relationship so they can become a mentor or even potentially write a letter.

Last – Reflect on the experience. Remember that is why you were shadowing in the first place – to learn about the profession and figure out who your values and interests match what you are seeing in practice (not just on tv or in your imagination).

Keep a journal to reflect and think about the following questions:
  • What are the joys of the career?
  • What were some of the frustrations?
  • What does a typical day look like?
  • Can I see myself doing this?
  • What are some of the communication tools the PA or physician used to connect with patients?
  • How did the physician or PA demonstrate leadership?
  • What are some of the interesting cases or dilemmas that came up?
  • How did patients with the same complaint or diagnosis differ from each other?
  • What did critical thinking or problem solving look like?
  • What does the team look like and how do they communicate with each other?
  • How did this shadowing experience compare with your other experiences in healthcare?
  • What are the most important skills they used throughout their day?
  • What did they study in college and how did they prepare for their specialty?
  • How does their job impact their personal life?
  • What did their career path look like?

Shadowing is not measured in hours, but rather, in knowledge gained. Make sure you take the time to make it a meaningful experience.