Clinical Observation/Shadowing

As Director of the Pre-Professional Health Sciences Program, I often find myself in conversation with students who need clarification on our holistic approach to the admissions process. As a former medical school admissions interviewer, I’d encounter students who hadn’t completed the basic clinical observation needed to demonstrate that they understood the clinical environment. These candidates would draw on their non-observation experiences in an attempt to persuade faculty and admissions teams that they’d fulfilled their requirements. It never worked to their advantage. More importantly, these conversations had implication for our current pre-professional health science students.

In order to move forward, we need to answer two questions: What is clinical observation? Why is shadowing important?

What is shadowing?

According to the University of Washington School of Medicine, shadowing means specifically observing the physician-patient interaction. Volunteering with patients, conducting clinical research, and working as an office assistant or insurance coordinator in an office are all great ways to develop a broader understanding of the field of medicine. However, these experiences are NOT the same as shadowing.

Shadowing entails unpaid observation of a health care provider interacting with colleagues, patients, staff, and technology. Applicants should shadow physicians in the U.S. whose practice most closely resembles the applicant’s potential career goals. Dental, medical, veterinary, and other professional schools want to know with certainty that applicants are making an informed decision. Too often, applicants neglect the shadowing experience.

Because our neighbors at the UWSOM require premedical students to shadow primary care physicians for 40 hours, SPU’s program requires all PPHS students to complete the same number of hours. Student interested in a career as a Physician Assistant need around 2000 paid hours working in a clinical setting, which is different from shadowing.

What is a Shadowing Program?

A medical clinic may establish a Shadowing Program to assist undergraduates who wish to observe clinical practice in a U.S. setting. These programs should acculturate observers to American medical practices and help prepare them to explore medical education. Such programs typically allow 4-8 hours per preceptor/specialty, and the observer can rotate among several preceptors to create a longer experience. Health care professional preceptors tend to volunteer their time and efforts.

Why is shadowing necessary?

By observing a health care provider at work, applicants can see how physicians deliver bad news or deal with difficult patients. Applicants can also develop a more realistic understanding of what medicine can and can't do. Although participating in medical mission work abroad may involve shadowing and is a wonderful form of service learning, it does ​not provide an applicant with an adequate view of the practice of medicine in the U.S. Shadowing in the U.S. is an opportunity for prospective physicians to witness firsthand what they are getting into.

What do you learn from shadowing?

  • Begin to explore your career as vocation.
  • Develop a mature image of the practice of medicine.
  • Cultivate mentoring and personal relationships with health care professionals.
  • Gain first-hand experience of the limitations and possibilities of medicine.
  • Demonstrate a long-term commitment to medicine.
  • Determine your affinity for the clinical environment.
  • Find motivation to persist in your professional commitment to serve.
  • Gain experiences that allow you to articulate your professional aspirations.