Pre-health Prep: Shadowing vs. Clinical Volunteering

Many pre-health students wonder what the difference is between shadowing and clinical volunteering, as well as how much of these experiences they before applying to professional school.  Here’s a quick take:

  • Shadowing is observing a medical professional at work in the clinic.  Clinical Volunteering is giving your unpaid time to support patients and professionals in a clinical setting.
  • Shadowing opportunities can be difficult to find, especially in very busy clinical settings and due to privacy regulations and concerns.  Some Penn pre-health clubs set up shadowing opportunities for active members.  PPMA has a large shadowing program, for example.  Some students will ask a healthcare professional connected to their research position.  Very often, students find more opportunities off campus in community hospitals or clinics, especially in their hometown.
  • Clinical volunteering is not the same as clinical research.  While clinical research might entail interacting with patients, it is not service work.  Your interactions with patients need to include service work by the time you apply.
  • The are many opportunities for clinical volunteering in Philadelphia.  Many of them are listed on our pre-health resource PDF.  The challenge is finding opportunities that fit with your other commitments and applying well in advance.  It can take months to apply, be accepted, submit necessary paperwork and train before you begin spending time with patients.
  • “How many hours of shadowing do I need?”  Unfortunately, there is not clear answer to this question.  At Penn, our successful applicants tend not to have a ton of shadowing hours.  Some have none.  Many have shadowed 2-3 professionals for a short time.  There are other colleges and universities where shadowing is more common.  What we know is that our successful applicants do not have huge numbers of shadowing hours and that they are devoting that time to other relevant pursuits.  Having said that, our applicants frequently cite shadowing as one their most motivating and meaningful activities, so you should seek it out and do it when possible.  But, you do not need to spend your whole summer shadowing.  If you are concerned about shadowing, you can contact a pre-health advisor for thoughts.
  • “How many hours of clinical volunteering do I need?”  Our successful applicants tend to have sustained and meaningful clinical volunteering experiences.  This means that they usually volunteer for more than one summer or one academic year.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to give a number of hours that an applicant should have.  Many wonderful clinical opportunities only offer a small number of hours each week or month.  Showing commitment to such an opportunities and having meaningful things to say about it is better than logging twice as many hours without much insight into what you are doing.  Again, consult with a pre-health advisor if you are concerned about your clinical volunteer experience or trying to figure out how to fit it into your busy schedule.  You can do it and its’ very important!
  • “What counts as clinical volunteering?  What’s best?”  A good clinical volunteering experience is not about “getting to do things” with patients in a hands-on way.  It may include that if you are trained as an EMT or supervised while you, for example, take blood pressure readings.  But the “getting to do things” is not what makes it a meaningful experience in the eyes of medical schools.  In fact, there are instances where “getting to do things” crosses an ethical line, which doesn’t help anyone’s application.  A good clinical volunteering experience is one where you can serve patients in some way, whether it’s offering a cup of water, playing a game, or listening attentively.  What makes the experience “good” is not the experience itself, but your engagement with it.  When you share your observation and reflections with medical schools, it will be clear.    The same experience, undertaken by two applicants, might be a wonderful opportunity for learning or simply “putting in the time” depending on how it is shared on an application or in an interview.
  • “Do I have to volunteer abroad?”  No, you do not have to volunteer abroad.  If you volunteer abroad, be sure to do it in the U.S. as well.
By Carol Hagan
Carol Hagan Senior Associate Director, Graduate School Advising Carol Hagan