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Getting Into Medical School: Medical Experience

In this lesson, I’m going to take you through some considerations for getting medical experience, both as a volunteer and as a paid worker.

Medical experience falls under the broad category I call breadth of experience and getting this experience is essential for anyone who hopes to have a career in medicine. Students most commonly gain medical experience by shadowing a doctor as they do their work.

I defined shadowing in a previous lesson, but I’ll say it here again. Shadowing experience occurs when a student works one on one with a doctor to observe closely what the doctor does and learns something about the practice of medicine from it. Through shadowing, a student learns more about what and how a doctor performs their work, and, hopefully, the doctor learns more about the student who is doing the shadowing. That is important when things like letters of reference are considered.

Getting shadowing experience is increasingly difficult, due to restrictions imposed by insurance companies as protection against potential malpractice or other liabilities. As a result, some clinics may expect you to pay for an insurance policy to cover any liability arising from your shadowing. It pays to check on this in advance because a student who walks in fully prepared with such a policy in hand is much more attractive as a shadowing candidate.

By the way, being prepared beforehand is also important when it comes to asking a doctor about their willingness to allow you to shadow. When you go to that meeting, be sure to have your resume in hand that you can give to them in case they want to “think about it.” It should include your contact information.

For this talk, I’m only considering two major providers of human medicine—allopaths (that is, MDs) and osteopaths (D.O.s). I recognize there are other practitioners of human medicine, such as naturopaths and homeopaths, but they are not part of this discussion.

The decision of choosing allopathic versus osteopathic medicine is one I recommend students spend some time investigating. They are different approaches to the practice of medicine and though the gap between them has narrowed considerably in recent years, there are differences in their approaches and students should make informed decisions about which route to take.

Of the two different ways of practicing medicine, osteopathic medicine is the one that is more particular in the experience they expect you to have prior to applying. In my observations, osteopathic medical schools expect that students will have shadowing experience with at least one osteopathic doctor. Such experience needs to be documented by a letter of reference in the student’s application from that doctor. It is OK to have MD letters too, but students applying to osteopathic schools should plan on having at least one letter from a D.O.

MD programs do not seem to be so specific in their expectations, accepting letters from D.O.s and MDs without expecting at least one letter from an MD. I recommend getting such a letter, but that is just my perspective.

While shadowing is prime for demonstrating knowledge of and exposure to the practice of medicine, other significant medical experience may satisfy this expectation. It will pay students to check with medical programs they intend to apply to about the desirability of shadowing versus other types of experience.

For example, people who have jobs in medical environments with physicians for a significant amount of time may be able to use that experience. Nurses, medical assistants, and scribes could fit in this category. The last is an increasingly popular way for students to get medical experience and they get paid for it to boot. Shadowing, by contrast, is unpaid. I’m very much in favor of scribing as a way to get medical experience, but there are also some cautions students need to know about.

First, scribes are typically students or recent graduates hired by health-related agencies to work with doctors. They follow the doctors around as they perform duties and serve as the writer/recorder of what the doctor needs to have noted. In a sense, a scribe is the eyes and ears of a doctor and the experience is fantastic. Scribes learn about medicine from the inside. That’s the good part.

There are several downsides to scribing that students need to know. First, in the COVID-19 era, many hospitals and clinics have significantly reduced the number of scribes they are using. While I expect that to increase in the long term, in the short term the opportunities are relatively limited.

Of more concern from my perspective as an observer and advisor to many former students who have scribed, I do not like the way I have seen many scribes treated. First of all, it is great that students get paid to get medical experience, but the pay is often very close to minimum wage, making it difficult to support oneself. Second, hiring agencies often juggle hours so that health benefits are not included, though this varies.

Though I know it varies from one company to the next one, I have seen scribes bullied about schedules with the threat always hanging over their heads that there are many others who would like to have the opportunity to scribe.

If you want to scribe, then I advise you do it as follows

First, wait until you’ve graduated or are within a month or so of graduation. After graduation, you’re likely to have more freedom in your schedule to work odd hours, if necessary.

Second, be very wary of a second job with scribing unless you’ve got something in writing about the hours you’ll be working.

Third, try to work with one or two doctors primarily, not a large collection of them. Working for a large group makes it harder to get to know them and harder as a result to get a reference for medical school.

In summary, you need to get significant medical experience prior to applying to medical school. We saw that osteopathic schools expect osteopathic shadowing whereas allopathic schools were not so picky. Shadowing is unpaid, but scribing is paid, though with a few caveats.

In the next lecture, I’ll discuss leisure time and how to spend your summers.

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Written by

Kevin Ahern

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