Shadowing is an arrangement between an individual student and individual health professional, in which the student follows, or shadows, the professional for a specified number of hours as an observer. Many Health Professions schools want to make sure that applicants are making an informed decision before they apply to, and attend school; shadowing is one way a student can demonstrate such preparation.

Shadowing means observing the professional-patient interaction...

By observing professionals at work, students will develop a more realistic understanding of what health care can and cannot do. Students will view the day-to-day responsibilities of the health care provider, find out what the profession is  all about, clarify or validate initial impressions, discover likes and dislikes, improve goal articulation, test their level of commitment to the profession and enhance motivation, and find out all about the political/financial aspect of the profession.

Shadowing hours might vary from school to school and from field to field.  Students should check with the schools to which they are planning to apply.  As a minimum students may want to consider shadowing around 40 hours.  We recommend that students have a conversation with the individual to be shadowed and agree together if 40 hours might be enough for him/her to get to know you and write you a strong letter of recommendation.  Shadowing need not be with one professional or in a single short time span.  In fact, shadowing multiple individuals over several months to years will give students an opportunity to explore not only different professions, but also to compare different practice settings and different styles of interaction with patients.

Volunteering with patients, conducting clinical research, or working as an office assistant or an insurance coordinator in an office are all great ways to develop a broader understanding of the health field. However, these activities are NOT the same as shadowing.

Questions to ask (yourself) when Shadowing:

  • Can I see myself doing what this professional does on a daily basis?
  • Can I see myself as a colleague of this professional?
  • What are the pros and cons of this particular type of practice?
    Consider: size of practice (solo or group), types of patients (age, sex, problems/diagnoses, insurance), size of community, salaried or self-employed, paper charts or electronic medical records, hours and call schedule, family life, community service and/or influence, ability to practice in rural area or overseas
  • How does the professional relate to his/her patients?
    Consider: formal or friendly approach, standing up or sitting down, rushed or not rushed, listening or interrupting, speaking with words that the patient can understand or speaking medical/professional jargon or speaking in patient's primary language if it isn't English
  • What factors seem to play into how the patients respond to the (insert profession)?
  • How do I feel about chronic problems compared with acute problems?
  • How do I feel when I see patients who don't listen to advice or who don't take good care of their health?
  • Did all patients with the same diagnosis seem the same? If not, how and why might they have been different from one another?
  • Do I like situations in which a decision has to be made quickly?
  • Do I like the pace of this type of practice?
  • What did the professional do when s/he didn't know the answer to something?

Arranging a Shadowing Experience:

As an aspiring professional student, it is your responsibility to make the initial contact. Practices and Hospitals have different regulations for having observers in the room with the professional and the patient. It is your responsibility to find out what these are in order to meet them. At the least you will need to demonstrate that you understand the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, better known as HIPAA.  Documentation may be required that you are fully immunized and therefore do not present a risk of infection to a patient.

Ideas for Finding Shadowing Opportunities:

  • Ask your personal physician/professional if you might be able to shadow him/her. If not, is there someone s/he could recommend?
  • Network with friends and family to contact professionals they may know.
  • Get a job as a scribe or medical interpreter.
  • Volunteer at a hospital or clinic and network with professionals there.

How to Get the Most Out of Shadowing

  • Approach 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.
  • Make a solid time commitment to maximize your learning and show your dedication.
  • Respect patient confidentiality and obey privacy laws.
  • Keep a descriptive AND reflective 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 and your cover letter when you request letters of recommendations.
  • 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.

You should examine your study habits to consider whether they have the discipline to work in a research lab while also keeping up with course work.  You will typically need to demonstrate a long term commitment as professors expect students to work in their lab for at least a year. It usually takes several months of training before students are able to work independently.

How to find an undergraduate research position in a lab?

Once you determine what sort of research interests you, there are several approaches that can be followed for finding a suitable research position:

  • Consult the web pages of the relevant departments where lists of the faculty members and their research interests can be found. Locate the list of professors' current publications and read one or two papers to gain further insights into the type of research carried out in different labs. Once you have prepared yourself, you should contact the faculty member expressing interest and inquiring if a position would be available. Be brief and ask for an interview. Bring a resume to the meeting and prepare as for any job interview. If the professor has no room, ask if she or he knows of any other labs with openings.
  • Check with your academic advisors and check your email often.  Advisors receive and circulate such information through the list serves.