Shadowing a doctor as a premedical student

For those who truly hear the calling, becoming a doctor is one of the most personally fulfilling, exciting, challenging and financially rewarding professions that there are. Doctors are among the most respected and admired members of society. They are real-life miracle workers, healing the sick and saving lives through the studied application of medical science. Through their hard-won skills, they are among the only professionals whose every action can truly have life-or-death consequences. And because of their central role in modern society, doctors’ services are guaranteed to always be in high demand.

With great rewards come heavy burdens

Most are familiar with the alluring trappings of being a doctor: the often-stratospheric salaries, commanding instant and deserved respect wherever one goes, working in an exciting and highly challenging environment that pushes even the most talented to their limits and, most importantly, being able to thwart nature by healing the sick, saving the moribund and returning loved ones to their families in fully restored health.

But few are acquainted with the level of sacrifice that becoming a doctor entails. Statistics show that as many as 60 percent of premed students are not accepted to medical school. And of those who do get into medical school, another 8 percent, when medical school and residency attrition rates are taken into account, will never make it into actual medical practice.

Premed attrition rates reportedly vary wildly, from 17 percent to 50 percent and higher. Even taking the most conservative premed attrition rates, more than 70 percent of premed students who apply to medical school will never enter medical practice. And these are all students who sincerely believed that becoming a doctor was their calling and who were serious enough about it to enroll in a university for a medical career track.

Such a high percentage of people who eventually drop out, for one reason or another, may seem shocking. But it is far better to be shocked now than to realize that the medical profession is not for you after a great deal of time, effort and money have been spent.

One of most time-proven and indispensable ways to get a true picture of what the medical profession is all about prior to enrolling in medical school is to shadow a doctor.

How to shadow a doctor

As the statistics coldly reflect, the simple truth is that not everyone is cut out to be a doctor. Many people believe that they are fully aware of the immense challenges, triumphs, frustrations and even horrors that inhere in medicine, having gleaned them from reading books and articles or from watching television shows and movies. But the truth is that only through immersing yourself in a real-world medical practice can you truly get a realistic snapshot of all the life-altering things that being a doctor encompasses.

This is where shadowing a real-world physician, surgeon or other practicing medical professional comes into play. Shadowing a doctor throughout the course of their day provides irreplaceable first-hand experience, giving you a live-fire snapshot of what the life of a medical practitioner is like.

Choosing the right specialty

For good cause, most medical schools recommend that applicants spend at least 40 hours shadowing a doctor that practices in the specialty in which they desire to eventually become certified. In fact, one of the most important benefits of shadowing doctors is the ability to be exposed to a variety of medical subdisciplines. The fast-paced, adrenaline-fueled and often-shocking day of a big-city trauma surgeon is so vastly different from the laid-back sterility of a rural internist that they might as well be members of completely different professions. It is important to understand the stark differences between the many specialties that fall under the umbrella of being a doctor.

Even the contrasts in the daily routines of a pediatrician versus a pediatric oncologist may prove surprising and profound. Those with certain personality types will be well-suited to one practice area but not at all to another. And nearly all medical schools recommend that students choose their specialty earlier than later.

For this reason, you should carefully consider what specialty areas suit you and then pursue opportunities for shadowing a doctor in the given field. Creating a written list of the areas in which you’re interested is one effective technique. You can also use any notes you compile during the shadowing experience to create comparative summaries of the different subdisciplines. And these can help in creating compelling admissions applications.

Start close to home

If you don’t know where to start in a premedical internship, start where you’re most familiar. Interning with your family physician can be a great experience. But even if they are unavailable, they may be able to direct you to other physicians who are open to taking on premed students.

Another place to look for interning opportunities is your local hospital. While not every doctor will agree to take you on, there are sure to be some who will.

Be polite but persistent

Always maintaining a polite demeanor, a studious disposition and a good attitude will go a long way towards filling out a strong resume of interning with a doctor. But you may also need to be persistent if you don’t immediately find opportunities to do so. One important thing in recognizing how to shadow a doctor is that there are thousands of potential opportunities in every decent-sized city. Even when trying to locate interning opportunities within narrower specialties, remembering to be polite yet persistent will go a long way towards ensuring that someone takes you on.

Why bother with how to shadow a doctor?

Once in medical school, changing specialties isn’t just a matter of time; it’s a matter of tens or potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars. What specialty you choose can also have a profound effect on your chance of successfully making it through medical school and residency. Making sure that you are a good fit for the specialty that you ultimately choose is something that is best done early when the stakes are lowest. Doctor shadowing is a great way to accomplish this.

Making sure medicine is really your calling

On top of the fact that more than 80 percent of premed students will never don a white coat, as many as 60 percent of all premed applicants are outright rejected from all schools to which they apply. What all of this says is that the medical profession, apart from demanding nearly superhuman effort from those who ultimately do make it to residency and beyond, is among the most highly selective of any academic field. Combined, only 8 percent of college students who believe that they want to make medicine their life’s work will ever become practicing doctors.

While such high ultimate dropout rates may, on the one hand, be an indicator of a high degree of exclusivity and professional cachet, it is also an indicator that far too many pre-college students have unrealistic expectations about what becoming a doctor involves. The single best way to maximize the chance that a person who is embarking on a medical career track will ultimately complete it is to shadow a doctor at the earliest possible point in that person’s educational arc. The best time to shadow a doctor will often be when the student is still in high school.

Premedical interning can drive home some of the less commonly acknowledged realities of being a doctor. For instance, while media often focuses on the high points of the profession, medicine has its limits. And sometimes, those limits are both stark and heartbreaking. As a doctor, you will see countless examples of people for whom even optimal medical care proves insufficient. Interning with a doctor for even 100 hours is very likely to drive this point home in a way that no other activity can. It is, therefore, worth considering that finding opportunities within a busy hospital can make for a more robust interning experience, both in terms of the exposure to a huge variety of cases as well as looking very strong on an admissions application.

Throughout your premedical internship, you will likely experience, first hand, the realities of dealing with end-of-life issues and all of the emotional weight that goes with them. While nearly everyone who aspires to become a doctor is driven to help people, many will eventually find out that they simply don’t have the right emotional stuff to deal with situations that involve, for example, dealing with the parents of a child who is dying of cancer but for whom further aggressive treatment is contraindicated.

Being a doctor requires not only strong empathy but also a great deal of mental fortitude, the ability to prevent the emotionally charged and often extremely sad circumstances that frequently surround medical care from negatively affecting your work. Interning with a doctor for a couple hundred hours may not conclusively prove that you do have what it takes to make it over the long term in the profession. But it will usually serve as a good early filter to weed out those that definitively don’t have the right stuff.

Another reality that will become apparent after interning in a hospital or a general practice is that the things that comprise the normal course of a physician’s day tends to involve experiences that are very much unique to medicine. Many of the things that become a matter of course for a physician would appear shocking, brutal, disgusting and even horrifying to laypeople.

For this reason, physicians tend to discover that they must carefully filter the kinds of answers they give to questions like, “So, what was the highlight of your day?” Describing over dinner an unsuccessful debridement of a gangrenous toe or the catastrophic intestinal damage suffered by a gunshot victim and the interventions both injuries required is far beyond the comfort zone of most laypeople.

The simple fact that doctors inhabit a world, for as many as 100 hours per week, to which most people have little or no ability to relate means that doctors’ social lives often end up revolving around other medical professionals. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to say that many doctors’ entire lives are centered around medicine. Even when they are not on a shift, they are socializing with other medical professionals, reliving the week’s highlights and talking shop.

While being highly driven in one’s career and seeking to associate with those to whom one best relates are perfectly good, healthy and natural, some people will find the constricted social life that results from such passionate hyper-focus on one field off-putting. During a premedical internship, it is a good idea to pay close attention to whether you feel energized by the constant presence in a medical setting and around medical professionals or whether it is draining.

Finally, if you are sure that you want to dedicate yourself to becoming a doctor, interning with a doctor early will maximize your chances of being accepted to medical school. Interning proves to the admissions board that you are serious about your chosen life’s work and are willing to go the extra mile to excel at your studies and become a top-flight practitioner. And getting a strong letter of recommendation from an established physician is one of the single most-important steps to being accepted to medical school.

One important thing to remember is that you should request a letter of recommendation from any doctor for whom you shadow as soon as your time is done. Doctors in larger areas may see thousands of different people each year. Getting a letter of recommendation from them while their interactions with you are still fresh on their mind is critical if you want the kind of rich, detailed recommendation letter that medical-school admissions boards look for. It almost cannot be overemphasized that handing a glowing letter of recommendation from a locally respected doctor to any admissions board will vastly improve your chances of acceptance.


For those who don’t have immediate family members in the medical profession, figuring out how to shadow a doctor can prove to be difficult and time consuming. One great alternative to cold-calling local doctors in order to shadow them is to embark on a pre-medical internship with International Medical Aid.

International Medical Aid is a not-for-profit organization started by Johns Hopkins graduates that seeks to bring top-quality medical care to some of the most disadvantaged populations in the world. Unlike for-profit programs, International Medical Aid’s pre-medical internships are able to deploy the necessary resources in order to ensure the safety and security of its participants at all times while giving prospective medical students intensive and invaluable experience in the field and delivering critical medical care to people in the areas where access to even the most basic medical services may be nonexistent.

For students who choose to participate in an International Medical Aid program, all of the details will be worked out by the organization. More importantly, students will get hundreds of hours of challenging and intensive field experience in some of the most beautiful and exotic locations in the world. And they will experience this while providing crucial humanitarian care to those across the globe who are most in need.

There are few more-powerful ways to pad out a medical school application than with a humanitarian pre-medical internship through International Medical Aid.