In the medical school application process it’s expected that applicants will have experience with patients to inform their view of the medical profession and to have a realistic view of their intended path. Without this clinical experience it’s highly unlikely that an applicant would be admitted to medical school and with good reason. Spending time with both patients and physicians helps premed students understand the complexity of patient care, the emotional and physical stamina that the profession requires, and the challenges and rewards of being a physician. Furthermore, the training required to be a physician—the years of medical school and residency combined is a minimum of seven—is arduous and long; medical experience helps premed students confirm (or not) that the many years of training are worth the effort.
Getting medical experience can be achieved by sustained volunteering in a clinical setting (hospitals, clinics, nursing homes, hospices, etc.) or by shadowing doctors in different specialties perhaps at one or several institutions. Shadowing tends to be more short term than volunteering, in which a continuing commitment is generally required by the organization for which you volunteer. Most hospitals generally require a minimum time commitment of 75 hours and perhaps more in some cases. Such a volunteer commitment is preferred over random, short-term shadowing by the medical schools; it shows sustained effort on the part of premed students and also provides evidence that they have seen a changing environment over (usually) several months, thereby teaching them more about the profession.
Students often wonder what their role is in a clinical setting. What are they there to do? How can they help the medical team? What parameters should they follow? The Association of American Medical Colleges recently issued a set of guidelines for premed students to follow when in the clinical setting. It includes a list of learning objectives and the responsibilities premed students face when with patients; there is also a code of conduct for premed students to follow. Finally, patient privacy and confidentiality is of the utmost importance; most hospitals require training in privacy issues and the AAMC document also includes guidelines as to these issues.
Clinical volunteering is a wonderful opportunity to learn about the medical profession and the responsibility of being a physician. Premed students should approach this as a privilege to get a close view of the profession and eagerly soak up all that they can learn in the clinical setting.
–Liza Thompson, Expert Medical School Admissions Consulting