Your Options for Shadowing a Doctor: In-Person vs. Virtual Shadowing

If you’re a pre-med interested in shadowing a doctor, start here. With modern technology, there are now options that make obtaining valuable shadowing experience accessible to anyone, anywhere. Learn more about in-person versus virtual shadowing and what to expect from the experience. 

First, Why Shadowing a Doctor is so Important

Shadowing hours are not a requirement for all medical schools, but we recommend pre-meds spend around 100 hours shadowing a physician for one very important reason: to help you decide whether a career in medicine is right for you. Before you spend the next 7+ years and thousands of dollars on medical school, shadowing is the best way to get real-world experience about your potential career. 

Following a doctor around all day in any setting is going to be eye-opening. Depending on the personality of the doctor you shadow, their specialty, and the busyness of the facility, it could be so fast paced you feel like a literal shadow. Or, you could get lucky with a physician who takes their time and who’s happy to share their knowledge and ensure you get a rich and engaging shadowing experience. 

Shadowing will help you understand the highs and lows of being a physician, and it will allow you to think introspectively about whether your own skills and personality are a match for the profession. 

Aside from being an enlightening experience for you personally, shadowing hours look good on your medical school application. It shows you’ve put in the time to know that a career in medicine is the right fit for you. It also gives you a leg up when starting medical school as you may have already been exposed to many of the conditions and procedures you’ll be learning about.

Get Help Applying to Medical School 

If you have your heart set on specific medical schools, definitely check out their admissions requirements in the Medical School Admission Requirements (MSAR) database from the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Many schools require at least 40 hours of shadowing experience before applying. 

Shadowing Options: In-Person vs. Virtual

When it comes to shadowing a doctor, you have two primary options: in-person or virtual/online shadowing. While virtual shadowing has been available for some time, it became more mainstream due to the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to keep students, doctors, and patients safe while still giving pre-meds valuable shadowing experience. 

In-Person Shadowing

As the name implies, you will physically go to a hospital or medical facility and follow a physician throughout their day. In-person shadowing is a valuable way to not only see medical procedures in the real world, but to also experience how a physician interacts with their patients and colleagues. 

In-person shadowing also enables you to build a rapport with local physicians, which could be beneficial when it’s time to get letters of recommendation from mentors. While you should always be respectful of a physician’s time, if you have the opportunity throughout the day, you can gain valuable insight about being a doctor by asking some specific questions

One of the primary benefits of in-person shadowing is that you get to see a variety of cases, especially if you shadow multiple doctors in different specialties. You also get to experience the entire facility and learn about the various roles within a hospital or medical office. If you live near a major city, you may have the opportunity to shadow doctors in niche specialties that many students may not have access to. 

Most importantly, in-person shadowing helps you decide if a specialty is right for you. Maybe you’ve always dreamed of being a pediatrician because you love kids, but after a couple days in a ped’s office you can’t handle all the crying. If you can find in-person opportunities locally, we highly recommend you shadow a variety of physicians in several specialties to see if you can envision yourself in that setting. 

Virtual/Online Shadowing

Virtual shadowing allows you to gain clinical exposure from the comfort of your home. Online shadowing is ideal for students living in remote areas or those interested in specialties they can’t find locally. It makes gaining shadowing hours more accessible to all students.  

With virtual shadowing, almost all experiences are pre-recorded classes or modules with guest speakers and lectures. They show real world case studies from a variety of physicians you might not have access to locally. The best part is that many virtual shadowing sessions are designed to be medically interesting and give you all of the information surrounding a case. With in-person, you may go all day waiting for something interesting to come up. Or, the doctor may be so busy seeing existing patients you don’t get the opportunity to learn why they performed a certain procedure or what other options the patient may have. Virtual shadowing often answers these questions. 

The obvious downside to virtual shadowing is the lack of real-time interaction with doctors and patients, although some online experiences will do a live stream or Zoom call for real-time Q&A sessions. 

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How to Find Shadowing Opportunities

Currently, it can be challenging to find in-person shadowing opportunities due to COVID-19 restrictions, but as vaccine rates increase more facilities are accepting students again. The first place to start looking for shadowing opportunities is within your friends and family circle. Do you personally know any physicians? What about your own family doctor, or perhaps a specialist like the orthopedic surgeon who treated you after a nasty sports injury? 

If you don’t have any connections locally, no worries. Any physician in any hospital or medical facility near your college is fair game. 

Finding In-Person Shadowing

While you can shadow any doctor, securing the experience does require a bit of legwork. Not all physicians are accommodating, but if you don’t ask, the answer is always no. Here are some tips for finding in-person opportunities:

    • Check the website of local doctor’s offices, clinics, and hospitals – many have online request forms specifically for students to schedule shadowing. 
    • Ask your pre-med advisor – if you’re already in a pre-med program, your advisor will likely have local resources for shadowing. Send them an email or schedule a meeting to talk about your interests and get advice. 
    • Check with on-campus facilities – if your university campus has an onsite hospital or medical facility, it’s almost certain they offer shadowing opportunities. 
    • Pick up the phone – if you still come up empty-handed, some good old fashioned cold calling may be necessary. Remember, there are still many small and private practices that may not have a website or use technology for requests. While it may feel awkward to call, shadowing is very common and we promise you’re not the first one to ask a front desk coordinator if their doctors are open to shadowing. 

Finding Virtual Shadowing

What about virtual/online shadowing opportunities? Fortunately, these are even easier to find, especially post pandemic. In fact, many medical schools launched their own online shadowing programs over the past year and a half to help prospective students acquire hours. Here are some tips for finding virtual shadowing:

  • Check with the medical schools you’re interested in – a quick search on the school’s website should turn up any online shadowing programs they offer, or you can email the advising team for suggestions.
  • Sign up for free virtual shadowing from MedSchoolCoach – their Virtual Clinical Education series has more than 25 shadowing modules from 20 of the world’s best doctors. The program features high yield clinical learning with case-based education that offers students an enriching experience of interacting with a physician in a specialized field, along with their patients. Students will have the chance to ask questions and shadow the physician as they go through their day-to-day, and will receive a certificate of completion to support their med school application. 
  • Check with doctors that offer telemedicine – some practitioners that offer virtual telehealth visits allow students to shadow them by being a participant on the call. While the physical examination is obviously limited, it does allow students to experience real-time interactions between the doctor and patient. It’s a nice middle ground between in-person shadowing and pre-recorded modules. 
  • Search online – a quick Google search will turn up even more online shadowing programs. The key is to choose a reputable program with active, case-based learning. 

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Do Medical Schools Accept Virtual Shadowing Hours?

You’ll need to check with the specific schools you plan to apply to to be sure. In general though, most schools have adjusted their admissions requirements to accept online shadowing hours.

Remember that the goal isn’t a certain number of hours to check off on your CV, but the experience you gain through shadowing. Medical school admissions committees want to know how shadowing impacted you — what you learned about yourself that helped solidify your passion for medicine, how you came to realize how your unique skills and personality would make you a good doctor, and how you envision yourself interacting with your own patients some day as a result of your shadowing experience.

Need Help Applying to Medical School?

The admissions advisors at MedSchoolCoach have helped thousands of students achieve their med school dreams. They can guide you in finding shadowing opportunities and how to tie the experience into your med school application to stand apart from other applicants. Schedule a free consultation for application advising services today. 

Amber Kelm

Amber is a writer for ProspectiveDoctor.com. She has more than 15 years' experience writing well-researched, engaging content that helps students achieve their dream of becoming a physician.

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