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Getting the most out of your shadowing period

Shadowing before medical school has become a common occurrence, almost an expectation for all students applying to do medicine. However, it can be overwhelming, especially at first, to know how you can get the most out of your time there while faced with so much new information and experiences. This article aims to provide a guide to tackling your shadowing period and allow you to enter the experience feeling as prepared as you can possibly be.

Firstly, understand that you are not there to gain knowledge about medical information - that’s what you’ll be spending the rest of your life at university and beyond doing! The purpose of the shadowing period is for you to gain an insight into the day-to-day life of a doctor, and how a hospital or clinic runs smoothly. The doctor you are shadowing may ask you questions from time to time, but don’t feel like you have to know all the answers - many doctors are experts in their own field and may forget that not everyone has the same amount of information that they have.

The purpose of the shadowing period is for you to gain an insight into the day-to-day life of a doctor, and how a hospital or clinic runs smoothly.

Next, you should make the purpose of the shadowing period clear to yourself. Ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What do you want to get out of this experience?

  2. How will you make the most out of the opportunities that you obtain?

  3. Why are you here? Is it to find out whether medicine is the right choice for you? Or are you here to expand your network and build connections? Or, do you want to know more about the science-y bits of medicine?

  4. Are there specific things that you want to achieve during your shadowing period? If so, what are they, and what can you do to make sure you achieve them?

Answering these questions should provide you with a base understanding of what you want to get out of your time spent shadowing, and allow you to keep that focus once you’re in the hospital environment. Sometimes, students may find that doctors don’t have as much time as they would like to spend teaching and guiding, and it can be very easy to get lost in the flow of the day without doing the things that you wanted to gain from the experience.

If there are specific activities that you would like to experience during the shadowing period, make it clear to the doctor or staff member you are shadowing. They may not be able to accommodate your requests, particularly during this difficult time of COVID-19, but the important thing is that they are aware of it and can potentially help you gain the experiences that you want. It may also be helpful to write some of your objectives down to remind yourself of what you would like to gain from your shadowing experience.

Equally, the shadowing period is intended for you to gain an insight into what life can be like as a medical professional, so don’t be afraid to just let the duties of the doctor you are shadowing dictate the schedule for the day. When you begin your shadowing experience, speak with your doctor about what they expect from you during your time at the hospital or clinic as well as what you want to get out of the experience.

The shadowing period is intended for you to gain an insight into what life can be like as a medical professional.

As a pre-medical student, you can start picking up practical skills such as measuring blood pressure with an electronic BP monitor, measuring height and weight, or helping to dress simple wounds. You can also ask if you can assist the nurses or healthcare assistants with their tasks, for example, setting out equipment for a simple surgical procedure.

Aside from that, you should also be actively observing the words and actions of the doctor you are shadowing and then reflecting upon what you have seen. Here are some examples of things you can look out for:

  1. How is your doctor communicating with patients? Are they phrasing things in a way patients can understand? Why is it important for a doctor to use simpler language as compared to big, complicated words? How would you want your doctor to communicate with you or your family members?

  2. What tools does your doctor use in their consultations with patients? (Examples: Video/remote consultation, electronic notes, paper files) Do you think that it is the same in all hospitals/clinics in Malaysia? What are the benefits of using these tools? What are the drawbacks?

  3. Who else is involved in the care of a patient? Why might multiple healthcare professionals (e.g. physiotherapists, speech and language therapists, specialist nurses, pharmacists, etc) need to be involved in managing one patient? What is a multidisciplinary team (MDT)? Who coordinates the care of the patient and makes sure the right people are looking after them?

Lastly, here is some general advice that you can take on board for your shadowing experience but also throughout medical school and beyond. If you are unsure about something, ask someone for clarification - everyone has to start from somewhere, so don’t shy away from asking questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question someone asks, say that you don’t know, but that you’ll find out! Learning is a lifelong journey, and the worst thing that you can do for yourself is to be afraid to admit when you aren’t sure of something.

At the end of the day, the most crucial thing is to have fun. Enjoy what you are doing, and be excited to turn up every day to learn. The shadowing period is your first taste of what it’ll be like to live and work as a doctor, so be open to new experiences, listen attentively and hopefully, you’ll learn lots! Good luck!

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