Step 1: Starting Out
There are several things to keep in mind when you first decide to shadow some physicians. First, you should ask your family physician or any physician in the area that you know either directly or indirectly through a friend. No one is going to care who you shadowed first; all it matters is that you did it, and connection is the best way to start.
If you do not have such connections, then you need to call physicians’ offices that you have personally visited before. A nice thing about this option is that because you visited those offices before, you know what they are like. So, while you may not have direct relationship with physicians, you can at least know what to expect. Anyway, the key here is on calling (not emailing) physicians’ offices, and normally, this is what I recommend you to say:
“Hi, I’m a student at ______ (name of high school or college) and I’m interested in shadowing Dr._____.”
You can give your name first if you would like, but usually, the secretaries at physicians’ offices will ask for it again along with your phone number. So, once you leave your contact information, you simply wait and see. Some physicians will call you back while others will not. You won’t know which one is willing to allow students shadowing until you give them a call though.
Step 2: Paperwork
Most people have heard of HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) Privacy Rule. This is probably one of the two most important things for anyone involved in health care (other one being infection control, which I will discuss in a bit). Confidentiality basically means that you are not allowed to discuss anything you see, hear, read, and observe once you leave the physician’s office. So, if you are shadowing a cardiologist, you cannot tell your parents that the first patient you saw had a pacemaker in her heart. You also cannot read patients’ private information like social security number or date of birth and use it for any purpose. Whether you know the patient or not, you cannot disclose the information from physicians’ offices to the outside world. Such violations will have serious consequences.
Besides the paperwork for confidentiality, the physicians’ offices will likely ask for your personal information and more importantly, papers for another physician to fill out for your health. Those papers often include TB (tuberculin) testing, and they are necessary for infection control. The reason is obvious: imagine that you are a patient who came to see your family physician. The last thing that you want is to catch a virus from someone working there. So, while you may think that getting additional papers and testing done is unnecessary, it is crucial for the health of people working there and patients.
Step 3: Shadowing
Once you have turned in all the necessary papers verifying your agreement to uphold confidentiality and infection control, you can now shadow your physician. But, wait, there is a catch: even if the physician approves of your presence in his office, you can only shadow a patient if the patient approves of your presence. This is very important. Patients have rights to decide who can be present when discussing their conditions with the physician. I’ve personally read in some cases where students were agitated that they could not shadow their physician because some patients refused. But, think about it the opposite way. If you are diagnosed with a serious disease (or a disease that you just aren’t very comfortable discussing), would you want a stranger to watch you while you are talking with your doctor? Probably not, right?
Now, what should you do once you have received approval from the patient? The first thing is that you should not talk while the patient and doctor are talking. I tend to think that the golden rule about shadowing is that you should behave as if you are not technically there. No matter how much education or experience you have in health care, if you are shadowing, you have no ability or right in that room. Keep in mind that you are there to observe, not participate, in the discussion.
Secondly, if the physician leaves the room to get something, you should definitely follow him/her out the door. It’s not that it’s wrong to stay with the patient by yourself, but it will be very awkward for both the patient and you. So, this is just a friendly tip to prevent you from being in that awkward moment.
Step 4: After Shadowing
After each of shadowing, you should thank the physician and other people at the physician’s office for providing that opportunity. You need to understand that these people do not have to provide shadowing experiences to you. They are kind enough to let you participate, and you must thank them.
Also, you should record the date of shadowing and how many hours you have accumulated. It is important to note that the hours of shadowing do not count as clinical volunteering or non-clinical volunteering. Lastly, try to expose yourself in various areas of medicine, and if you find an area (or a physician in particular) that you enjoy, spend more time with them. I believe that regardless of specialty, there is always something to learn about patient-doctor communication, as I discussed in one of my articles.
Personal Experience in Shadowing