Shadowing a physician can be one of the most rewarding experiences for premedical students. Because there is no formal standard or official guidelines for shadowing, experiences vary so much that it is difficult to know what to expect. However, there are a few aspects of shadowing that are fairly standard for nearly any setting. Here are 10 tips for your shadowing experience that can help you put your best foot forward.
Tip #1: Be Invisible
While shadowing a doctor, you should know your role during the experience. Your “job” or “duties” are simply to observe and pay attention. During your a shadowing experience, you have to realize that the patients you encounter are those of the physician. This can be a struggle for some, especially those with extensive prior clinical experience, such as nurses and physicians assistants.
Furthermore, the more you know about patient care, the more likely it will be that you’ll have an opinion about the care of patients during your shadowing experience. Although everyone is entitled to his/her opinion, make every effort to keep it to yourself.
Tip #2: Ask Questions
In most shadowing situations, you will expected and encouraged to ask thought-provoking, intellectual questions. One way to tackle this is to have questions prepared prior to shadowing. Another is to be attentive to the patient interactions and be able to tactfully express your curiosity.
It is important to know the proper circumstances that might be appropriate for questions. There may be some situations, such as surgery, where there is no opportunity to ask questions. As a general rule, try to refrain from being a chatterbox while the physician is with a patient. Save your questions for “down-time” moments, such as when the doctor is completing patient care documentation or at the end of the day.
Tip #3: Respect the Opportunity
Humility is your best friend. The fact is, most physicians will allow students to shadow as a courtesy or favor. In a nutshell, they are not obligated to allow you an opportunity to shadow. As a result, be respectful when you are addressed. Be sure to address appropriate individuals as sir, ma’am, or doctor when speaking. Respectful communication will help impress upon others you encounter with a sense of professionalism.
Tip #4: Observe Patient Privacy
HIPAA is possibly the number one concern of physicians that allow students the opportunity to shadow. Patients have a right to keep information regarding their medical care private. A common concern is that premedical students lack experience and/or training in a healthcare setting which could result in the patient privacy being compromised.
A good rule of thumb is to never let information leave the room. The smallest bit of information regarding a patient, such as gender, age, or medical condition can be considered personally identifying information. So once your shadowing experience is complete, refrain from telling others details about patient encounters.
Tip #5: Be Punctual
Be at the right place, at the right time, wearing the right attire. Treat your shadowing experience as if it is a job and take it just as seriously. Make an attempt to arrive to the location at least 15 minutes prior. If you’re shadowing somewhere in a larger city, be sure to take traffic into account when estimating how long it will take you to get there. Likewise, if there is a possibility of adverse weather conditions, allocate extra time for travel.
If you are early, you are on-time. If you are on-time, you are late. If you are late, you are forgotten.
Keep in mind that this is an opportunity for you to learn. Being late gives the impression that you do not care or that the time others allocate for you is unimportant. Of course, you are a professional and that’s what will make you successful – just be sure to show it.
Tip #6: Be Aware of Common Practices
Be cognizant of common practices for the setting in which you are allowed to shadow. Keep in mind that there are different rules for different types of clinical environments. If you make a mistake or honest error, apologize and correct yourself. Furthermore, make an extra effort not to repeat mistakes.
For example, if you have the opportunity to shadow a family practice physician in an outpatient setting, there are certain workplace norms of which you should be aware. It may be simple for some observers to forget to close the door behind them when leaving the exam room. Although a seemingly harmless action, forgetting to close the exam room door potentially compromises patient privacy.
Tip #7: Be Safe
Safety is of the utmost importance in a healthcare setting. There are several safety issues that are unique to a patient care environment. Safety concerns while shadowing can include infectious disease or workplace violence, to name a few. If you are not formally trained on safety precautions prior to your experience, do not be afraid to ask.
An example of a good safety practice while shadowing is to help prevent the spread of infectious disease. Millions of people get infections each year in a clinical setting. According to the CDC, hand washing is one of the most important methods that can be used by those in a healthcare setting to prevent the spread of infectious disease.
Tip #8: Be Mentally Prepared
Those who have never worked or volunteered in a clinical setting may not be aware of what you could encounter while shadowing a physician. You are likely to encounter people with illnesses and diseases that you have never seen before. Especially in an outpatient clinic, it’s likely that you will meet people that have HIV, cancer, or other life-threatening illnesses.
Tip #9: Be Flexible
Again, as an observer, you are being provided with an opportunity. The easiest way to squander an opportunity is to be inflexible. Ultimately, you have to determine how much of a priority you will make your shadowing experience, and therefore, how much you want to become a doctor.
Of course, you are very involved in your academics and extracurricular activities. You surely spend loads of time studying and attending club meetings. However, if a physician asks when you are available to shadow, it’s better to open your schedule up more than usual.
Tip #10: Smile
Smiling is contagious. Not only does a positive attitude leave a good impression on those around you, it also influences the attitudes of others. If you make the extra effort to show you’re happy to be shadowing, you may actually help brighten the day of those you encounter.
People often forget that perceptions are very important. If the physician you are shadowing is also one who will write a letter of recommendation on your behalf, your letter will be much stronger if it reflects an uplifting outlook.
Shadowing experiences vary according to the physician, the clinical setting, and the prior clinical experience of the student. Some students may only have the opportunity to watch and remain idle for the duration of the experience. Others may get more “hands-on”, where the physician will coach and guide them while administering patient care. Furthermore, some students may even get to become involved by helping take vital signs or listed to lung sounds.
Regardless of the setting of your experience, it will serve you better if you make the most of it. Take the opportunity to prepare yourself for shadowing, and hopefully, your future years as a physician.