So you want to get into medical school, right? At some point you will likely spend quite a bit of time “shadowing” physicians. This is a time honored tradition where young students get in the way of physicians and look silly for many hours. The idea is that time spent following actual doctors around can give you a glimpse into life as a doctor, so medical schools look for it on your resume. It’s one of the “unwritten” requirements to get into school. I thought it would be helpful if I made a list of things I wish I knew when I began shadowing. Of course, much like medical school, I think I am far better at humiliating himself while attempting to “shadow”, so this list is composed entirely of things to avoid. I’m not saying I’ve done all of these, I’m just saying it could be awkward if you did.
1) Constantly be in the way –
Pretend you’re me for an instant. Pretend you are at a dermatology clinic associated with a large teaching hospital. Following a few residents and an attending for a morning. So each clinic room is approximately the size of a closet. The patient, of course, sits on the awkwardly tall bed with the paper roll. Throw in one or two family members, the attending by the bed, and the resident on the computer, and you’ve got a full room. That’s when I show up. Since I’m a shade under 6’3 and am close to a comfortably pudgy 195 pounds, I take up quite a bit of space. That means I get to stand in the corner where the door opens, the corner behind the bed, or spread myself around the room so that we all fit. The trick in this instance is to think ahead. When you are ready to leave, open the door and begin leaving before the attending gets to the door and realizes they can’t open it because you are standing there. I tend to do a lot of shuffling. You have to learn this when you are the newbie in an operating room, when you are useless but the attending feels a need to get you in close. Space is tight at the table already, then I show up to lumber around the OR I feel extra awkward. Good times.
2) Sit in the wrong chair –
If you arrive first for your shadowing day (and you should always be early), you may be faced with a terrible dilemma. While waiting for ______ to show up, you will inevitably be left by yourself for some amount of time. This may be in the doctors office, maybe at a nurse’s station, but the worst is the clinic doctor’s area. This is the space where 4-10 computers are reserved for the physicians to use, and where you have to pick your chair. Take careful note of objects left near computers that might signal that the chair is “taken” by a regular. White coat draped over the back of a chair? Stay away from that. Coffee thermos by a keyboard? Don’t do it. The next part is looking not bored. If the doctor is late (the chances of this happening are very high), you should not whip out your iPhone and play Flappy Bird at full volume (even if it helps you play better). This is hard for me, since I have the attention span of a child as well as an iPhone with 20 fun games to play.
3) Ask Dumb Questions/ Never Ask a Single Question
You are spending your day with this person to learn. Realistically, you probably won’t learn or retain any medically useful knowledge during your visit, but the idea is to get exposed to the kind of work you might end up doing and make connections with the people currently doing it. Most doctors will make sure to ask you if you have any questions at multiple times throughout the day. This is important! You want to ask good questions so that A) Conversation flows nicely B) Things don’t get awkward and C) You avoid embarrassing yourself. Bad questions have short answers. “What time do you normally get here?” will get you a short answer and an awkward pause. Good questions take a while to answer and are pertinent to your clinic or specialty. They are also usually somewhat interesting if you actually listen to their answers instead of thinking about your next question. A great fallback question for me is to ask about the mechanism of some interesting symptom or disease you may have seen with them (in general, asking why things happen is pretty safe). The flip side of asking dumb questions is never asking a single question. You could come across as uninterested and not have as good of a shadowing experience. Have questions ready before you ever arrive.
4) Talk Too Much –
While shadowing a physician, you obviously want to get the most out of your day. However, they still have work to do.When they are busy, it’s best to shut up and follow along. Be their shadow. There is a pretty amazing range of experiences to be had when shadowing. On one end, some doctors allow students to participate actively in procedures. On the other hand, you may have to wait outside during certain visits. Don’t expect your heart surgeon to let you scrub in to surgery, reach in, and get your hands dirty. I got to do that in undergrad and it was awesome. If you talk constantly, you could very possibly drive everyone crazy and get sent home early for an obscure reason. Not cool.
5) Put on a show –
Let’s face it. When you’re shadowing, you really don’t know much about anything. It just comes with the territory. If you knew almost nothing, you’d probably be doing an actual rotation on that service as a third/fourth year medical student. If you’re pre-med, just be cool with the fact that you know exactly nothing. Don’t try to fake knowledge when it’s not there, and don’t try to act any specific way because it seems right. This applies to life in general, as well as shadowing. Shadowing is like trying on clothes. You want to see if they fit and if they look good. You want to see if medicine is something you could do for your life, and trying to be someone you’re not to fit in to medicine is like buying a pair of flip flops that are too large because they look cooler than the ones that are your size. You can wear them out of the store, but it’s not going to be fun walking to the car.
So there you have it. A friend at my medical school told me of a shadowing experience he had when he was a freshman in undergrad. The nurse in the OR mistakenly told the doctor he was a medical student, so the doc began quizzing him on some anatomy and histology stuff. Of course he knew none of it, but he was too scared to tell the doctor that he was a freshman in college, so the doctor went on this big rant about how terrible the next generation of doctors were going to be and how dumb medical students are these days.
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