How to Get the Most Out of Shadowing in Medical School

Estello Hill
Published on Mar 12, 2020. Updated on Aug 21, 2023.

After getting into medical school, the question of “What kind of doctor do you want to be?” is commonly asked. Some people come to medical school knowing what they want to be, while others don’t—and that’s OK! Regardless, shadowing is a great opportunity to get experience in a specialty you are interested in. Read Estello’s tips below to getting the most out of shadowing.

Medical school can be overwhelming. Given all the lectures, labs, clinical sessions, and not to mention all the time spent studying, you’d have to be crazy to add more things to that busy schedule. But at the end of the day you need to decide what kind of doctor you want to be, and the best way to get that exposure is by experiencing it first-hand.

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Why shadow?

There is no one perfect way to shadow, but through my own personal experience and the collected thoughts and opinions of some of my classmates, I’ve come up with a little guide to help medical students get the most out of shadowing and to hopefully help prepare them to answer the biggest question of their life after getting into medical school… “What kind of doctor do I want to be?

Osmosis illustration of Estello with a thought bubble of kidney, liver, intestines, heart, dna, scalpel

Finding the right person to shadow

There are a lot of opportunities to find a suitable preceptor. Our school provides us with a shadowing database, but it’s important to use all the resources you have at your disposal. Get recommendations of people to contact from classmates, friends, or doctors you’ve met that seem interesting. Reaching out can be a little difficult at first. In my experience, I’ve had to send out a lot of emails. An individual preceptor’s response can vary from no response to responding right away. Just make sure to introduce yourself in a professional way, and before you know it you’ll have lots of shadowing opportunities lined up.  

Setting Expectations

Setting expectations of what you’d like to get out of shadowing is an important part of making the most of your experience. I like to think of shadowing in two different ways: there is shadowing for breadth of experience and shadowing for depth of experience.

When shadowing for breadth, the goal of the session should be to experience something new. Take this opportunity to broaden your medical experiences, and to learn about a field of medicine you may have not been exposed to yet. Being a medical student is a unique opportunity that gives you the honor to experience each and every medical specialty, a luxury you might not have later in your career. Prior to showing up, I’ll do a little pre-reading on the particular topic or I will ask my preceptor for suggested reading, but I won’t prepare too much more than that. My goal when shadowing for breadth is to get a general idea of what that particular medical specialty is like, and to speak to my preceptor to see what their lifestyle is like, and potentially even try and understand what drew them to choose this medical specialty in the first place. 

When shadowing for depth, you should try to pick a specialty that you’re a little more familiar with. Perhaps it's something you’re interested in specializing in or something that helps consolidate the material you’re currently learning in the semester. It is much more important to prepare more for these sessions, and to go in with the focus of getting as much practical clinical experience as possible, such as interacting with patients, and engaging with or helping your preceptor as much as possible. 

Osmosis illustration showing depth with Estello scuba diving and breadth and Estello on a boat

What to do while shadowing 

Okay, you’ve arrived at the ICU. You’re excited, and probably a little nervous, but you’re ready to shadow this intensivist. What exactly do you do now? Here are some tips:

Be comfortable and be yourself

Remember to not be intimidated by your preceptor or the situation. Shadowing is one of the best ways to learn medicine, and an opportunity to see a practicing doctor in their element. Being comfortable and being yourself will make the experience enjoyable for you, your preceptor, and the people you're interacting with on the wards. 

Be transparent about why you are there

Letting your preceptor know that you’re there for the experience or if you’re there to deepen your understanding of the specialty can help them cater to you during the session. 

Be transparent about what you know

When you encounter something you do not understand, be honest about. More often than not, preceptors are enthusiastic about teaching you about their specialty, so be inquisitive and don’t be ashamed of the limitations of your knowledge.

Getting your hands-on experience with patients

A part of being transparent about your knowledge and capabilities includes: taking advantage of opportunities where you can work on skills you’ve begun to develop. Offer to do a physical exam, or take vitals, or even inquire about a differential diagnosis that falls within your skillset.

Estello shadowing a doctor

What to do after shadowing

Let the experience you had while shadowing guide your learning. Reflect and make note of the different cases you’ve seen and do some reading around them. It’s always much easier to remember facts about an illness or treatment when you can track it back to a real patient. 

After your shifts, don’t forget to thank your preceptor for taking the time to let you shadow them. This could even be an opportunity to set up another shadowing shift and possibly to start a new relationship with a mentor who you can repeatedly learn from. 

I’ve seen so many amazing things shadowing in my two years of medical school. I’ve slowly been able to identify things that I like, and things that I don't. While I am still undecided about what kind of doctor I’ll be, I’m that much closer thanks to some of the time I’ve spent shadowing. 

About Estello

Estello is a second year medical student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada and is considering General Surgery. Born and raised in Vancouver, Estello moved to Montreal for his undergraduate degree at McGill University in Psychology, and now finds himself back home in Vancouver. Outside of medical school, Estello works as the president of a charity he founded, called SocialSport. In his spare time, he's a self-proclaimed Vitruvian Man of health and wellness, splitting his free time between the gym, teaching yoga, meditating, and writing.

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