How to Get the Most Out of Clinical Volunteering or Shadowing

  • Approach clinical volunteering or shadowing with an open mind and don’t expect too much. Remember that your medical skills are limited; don’t expect to do more than you’re able to.
  • If you shadow, make a solid time commitment to maximize your learning and show your dedication.
  • Respect patient confidentiality and obey privacy laws.
  • Keep a journal of your experiences; not only will it help you process some of the emotions you may encounter upon seeing illness (and perhaps death), jotting down your thoughts will also help when you write your personal statement for medical school.
  • Be a helper. You’ll sometimes be called upon to do menial tasks; do them with enthusiasm and remember that these tasks help the entire health care team function better, which in turn translates into better care for patients.
  • Use your power of observation to try to understand the ways health care teams function and to figure out how you can best contribute.
  • Ask questions when appropriate but be sensitive to the situation.
  • Read about what you observe; maximize your learning by doing outside reading to complement what you’ve witnessed.
  • Enjoy and learn from the experience.

Shadowing vs. Volunteering: What’s the Difference?

Shadowing

There are several ways premed students can gain clinical experience, by volunteering in a clinic or hospital or by “shadowing” a doctor. Shadowing entails spending time with a physician, observing her work. Shadowing can be helpful in that it allows premeds to see what physicians do on a day-to-day basis.

The value of the shadowing experience depends on:

  • Your time commitment and resulting depth. The more experience you have, the better.
    • A shadowing experience of one day has limitations; it does not allow you to see or learn that much and requires minimal commitment on your part.
    • A shadowing experience of at least six months shows that you have made a time commitment and are eager to learn about the medical profession in some depth.

The richness of the experience can also depend on the physician with whom you are paired, and whether she explains the patient care she is providing and is eager to mentor you. If you decide to shadow a physician (or more than one!) be sure to set a time commitment for yourself of at least six months. Setting a time commitment will maximize the experience while also proving to the medical schools in your future application that you dedicated yourself to learning about the medical profession.

Volunteering

While many premeds seek out shadowing experiences, and this can be beneficial, volunteering often requires a specified time commitment and can thus be perceived by medical schools as more useful and instructive than shadowing.  Volunteering is usually a more formalized arrangement than shadowing; volunteers normally set up the experience through a volunteering office at a hospital or clinic, which requires participants to fill out paperwork and go through a specific process to get started. Shadowing tends to be less formalized.

  • Hospitals and clinics usually require volunteers to commit to a specific time commitment of several months, and sometimes longer.
  • It requires dedication from participants, who, over time, may be able to take on an active role.
  • Volunteers are usually assigned to a specific area of the hospital, enabling them to engage in in-depth learning and to observe healthcare teams in action.
  • Volunteers tend to be exposed to the varied rhythms of a hospital or clinic over a long period of time, allowing them to understand the complexity of medicine.

Those who shadow can reap the same rewards as long as their time commitment is on par. Volunteers can learn from the various healthcare workers with whom they come into contact by asking questions and seeing how they function as part of a team. Good patient care involves teams of healthcare workers; seeing how a good team functions to provide outstanding patient care is essential for premeds to learn, whether by volunteering or shadowing.