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Shadowing Physicians: Guidelines From a Physician


Guest blog post provided by Dr. Reid Thompson, a pediatric cardiologist at Johns Hopkins Hospital

Shadowing Dos and Don’ts

Shadowing is a great way to observe either a particular specialty or a specific physician and learn more about medicine as a career and what it means to be a clinician. Finding a shadowing experience is usually a matter of sending a short email, specifically tailored to the physician you want to shadow, including a brief statement of who you are and why you want to shadow him or her. It is probably best to set a time frame on your request, and make the request fairly specific and easy to accommodate, instead of leaving it open ended. For example, asking to shadow once or twice over the next few months is better than just asking to shadow with no specifics provided. To make the experience meaningful for you and your host clinician you should think in advance about what to do and not do.

  • Make sure to inquire of your host the specific time and location to meet as well as a contact number in case you get lost or are running late.
  • Make sure to dress appropriately. This usually means a shirt and tie for men and appropriate work attire for women. Tee shirts, jeans, sandals, open toe shoes, low-cut shirts, yoga pants, tight clothing are not appropriate. Avoid perfume, cologne, after shave lotions with heavy scents.
  • Before arriving make sure you have had something to eat and drink, especially if you are to be observing in the operating room where you will often be standing for long periods and may be prone to becoming lightheaded, especially with the possibility of novel sights, sounds and smells.
  • Show up on time (or preferably five minutes early). When you arrive, introduce yourself to staff and other physicians so everyone knows who you are and why you are there.
  • Be polite, respectful and professional.
  • Make sure you are in the moment, listening, thinking about what is happening and learning. Watch how the physician interacts with staff, trainees and patients. Listen to the specifics of the medical encounter. Try to imagine yourself in the role of the physician. How would you handle the situation?
  • Look for ways to be helpful. Sometimes the simplest action can make an encounter go more smoothly for all involved; finding a way to be helpful makes the experience more interesting for you and engages you. This can be as simple as preparing the examination bed by rolling out fresh paper, fetching something for the physician, or showing the patient where to go next.
  • Make sure to wash your hands before and after entering the patient’s room, even though you are not actually touching the patients.
  • Never touch the patient unless specifically invited to participate in the examination by the physician.
  • Don’t pepper the physician with questions but instead listen carefully and respond thoughtfully when spoken to.
  • Turn off your cell phone or at least silence it and do not check your phone frequently during the day.
  • If you want to look up something relevant to the experience, this is acceptable during down time during the day, but be aware that the physician may interpret this as your being bored. Consider instead bringing a relevant, easy-to-carry general text if you anticipate lots of downtime, or better yet, bring a journal to record your thoughts. Jot down your impressions and questions for later reflection but do not write down names or any other identifying patient information. Your encounter with the patients may involve highly sensitive information and you are being trusted by all to keep this information completely private.
  • Your host is busy and allowing him or her time to work without worrying about you is important and will make them more likely to have you back in the future.

Remember that the physician is glad to have you there, as your interest in the field and in his or her activities is an integral part of developing new physicians. Finally, a timely follow-up email thanking your host shows your manners and professionalism.

–Reid Thompson, MD

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