How to Ask to Shadow a Doctor (with Step-by-Step Guide)

So you want to be a medical student, eh? Well before writing the MCAT and committing to months of studying, it would probably be best if you knew what you were getting into. To date, the most effective way to do this is to shadow a doctor and obtain firsthand exposure to what the day in the life of a physician is really like.

This step-by-step guide will give you an approach on how to best ask a doctor to shadow them in the clinical setting and can be broken down into three easy steps:

  1. Choosing the right doctor 
  2. Where to get the necessary contact information 
  3. What to include in your email or telephone call

Step 1: Choosing the right doctor

While we all have ideas of what a doctor does based on our own experiences as a patient or through popular movie or television dramas, the truth is, most people really do not have a sense how much work the job entails. Specifically, seeing patients and providing active treatment is only a portion of a physician’s responsibilities and comes with a significant amount of administrative paperwork to ensure appropriate documentation and that patient care needs are met. As a result, most physicians have limited free time available for teaching and to take on additional learners in the clinical setting. Given this, we would recommend shadowing primary care physicians who are either involved in an academic setting or who have previously allowed undergraduate students to shadow them in the past. While some of us would like to be scrubbed in in the operating room or walking around the local emergency department, these settings are often too busy and require prior certifications before you are allowed entry. For this reason, primary care is often the best option to get exposure prior to medical school. Examples of affiliated academic primary care clinics can be found by looking through your local medical school’s website or by researching nearby clinics. Shadowing a doctor who has experience supervising medical students and trainees will make it more likely that they will have space for you in their clinic and their patients will likely be more comfortable having students in the clinical setting.

Step 2: Where to get the necessary contact information

Now that you found a potential physician to supervise you, the next step is to contact them and ask for permission. There are several possible approaches to this; however, we do not recommend showing up at the office on the day of a busy clinic. Specifically, contacting the physician by email or telephone to introduce yourself and to schedule a day for shadowing is likely to give you the most success. So where do you get the information to contact these doctors? First, we recommend contacting the clinic where the doctor works and speaking with the secretary directly. The administrative team typically works very closely with the physician and may be able to tell you whether the physician is likely to accept students. This telephone or email contact information can be typically found on the clinic’s website or through the local medical school website where the physician is affiliated. If neither of these approaches work, searching the physician through the local regulatory body (i.e. college of medicine), will typically provide the primary location of their practice as well as the physician’s contact information.

Step 3: What to include in your email or telephone call

Once you obtain the necessary contact information, the next step is to draft your email or prepare for your telephone call. Specifically, we recommend getting to the point and avoiding long winded stories or background information. Remember, physicians are very busy and it’s important to be concise in your communication. Some things to include are: your name, your current level of education, the reason why you want to shadow the doctor (i.e.., exposure to the clinical setting prior to committing the time and resource is to a medical school application), and how often you were hoping to attend clinic. It is important to be as professional as possible in these communications as no physician wants to jeopardize their reputation to take on a student which may disrupt their clinic, or worse yet, offend a patient. If the physician says yes, congratulations! be sure to be on time and to dress professionally on the scheduled date. If the physician says no, no sweat! thank them for their time and try the process again.

Remember, shadowing the doctor is not a requirement to attend medical school. It is for you to know what you are getting into prior to committing the time and resources to your medical school application. Hopefully, these steps give you an approach to follow; however, there is no perfect strategy, and we recommend taking an approach that has worked for you in the past or to try other approaches if unsuccessful.

Interested in more free resources regarding research, volunteering, and shadowing for pre-medical and medial students? Check out these blogs:
Why You Should be Involved in Research
How to Get the Most out Extracurriculars
Measurement of Research Productivity
The Research Problem for Medical Students

Book your appointment with a medical student consultant for one-on-one advice today!