Building Clinical Experience

Clinical experience takes place in a setting that serves patients, whether human or animal. It involves interactions with patients and/or clinicians. A clinical setting could be a hospital, private practice, animal shelter, residential facility, or even in the community as in the case of those who may serve as EMTs or do community outreach.

If you are interested in a career that involves directly treating individual patients’ physical and/or mental health, it is important to explore what it is like to work or volunteer in a clinical setting. These experiences will help you determine whether a particular profession is a good fit for you. They will also help you build critical skills such as communicating with people in vulnerable situations and behaving in a professional manner.

Shadowing

Shadowing can be an excellent way to explore professions and specialty areas. It can offer a direct look at the clinician-patient relationship and provide insight into how health care facilities function. By definition, when you shadow a clinician you are observing only. 

Most shadowing opportunities are found through networking and asking clinicians or practices whether they can accept student observers. Follow these steps to reach out to providers in a professional manner:

  1. Before contacting anyone, visit the CDC for help preparing your resume.

  2. Where possible, contact a clinician by writing to them at their work email address. If you cannot find an email address, it is appropriate to call the practice or hospital department to ask whether they have a general email address to which you could send a letter.

  3. Prepare a formal letter (in the body of an email is fine) that you will send to the clinician.

    Be clear and concise. Use a Standard or Indented Block Style layout. Make sure your letter is well written and free of grammatical errors.

    Begin with the most formal form of address until you are invited to do otherwise. That means that if you are emailing someone who holds a degree at the doctoral level (this could mean MD, DO, OD, DPT, OTD, DPM, DNP, DVM, DMD, DDS, PhD and more!) you will begin by writing “Dear Dr. LAST NAME.” If the person does not hold a doctoral degree, you will most commonly use “Mr.” or “Ms.” 

    First paragraph: Introduce yourself by stating your educational background and career goals. Reveal how you got their name and contact information. Explain your intentions for writing and indicate you are requesting an opportunity to job shadow.

    Second paragraph: Outline the reasons why you are contacting that provider. Perhaps you have a particular interest in their specialty or patient population. Maybe you are considering several career options within health care and would like to compare that person’s profession to another. If you are enclosing a resume, state that it is for informational purposes only.

    Final Paragraph: Thank the person for considering your request. Inform the person of your contact information (beyond email). Closing: Use “Sincerely” or “Respectfully” before your name.

  1. Be patient. Wait a week. At that point if you have not heard back, it is acceptable to resend your email with a brief new note at the top: “Dear Dr./Ms./Mr. LAST NAME, I am resending my original email in case you did not see it. Thank you again for your consideration. Regards (or a different formal word), YOUR NAME.”

  2. Be prepared to be told “no.” Not all clinicians can accommodate a pre-health student when they are seeing patients. If this is the response, be respectful, thank the person for their time, and ask whether they can recommend anyone else who you might contact about a shadowing opportunity.

  3. When you are told yes, thank the provider and find out what paperwork you may need to complete before you are able to shadow (you may need to do HIPPA training, provide proof of immunizations, and/or sign a confidentiality agreement). Let the provider know of any times when you definitely cannot be there to shadow, but also be as flexible as possible. Remember that they are doing you a favor.

Here are some additional resources to help you find a shadowing opportunity. Be willing to shadow in professional areas outside of what you think you would like to do. You may be surprised at what you learn!

When you go to shadow, above all be professional, respectful, and grateful. The following resources provide excellent advice on what to do (or not to do!) while shadowing and offer suggestions of helpful questions to ask the clinician in between seeing patients.

Volunteering

Volunteering in a clinical setting can be a great way to gain experience interacting with patients, families, and sometimes clinicians. Unless you have prior medical training, you will not provide any form of medical care while volunteering.

Tips from the AAMC on finding health care related volunteer opportunities 

Some resources for pursuing local clinical volunteering

Paid clinical work

Sometimes aspiring clinicians seek paid clinical work for a year or more before entering professional school. Paid positions involving direct patient care require prior training and certification. Some examples include being an EMT, certified nurses’ aide (CNA), or veterinary technician. Other paid jobs that involve patient interaction may provide on-the-job training, such as being a medical scribe or (in some cases) a dental assistant. In some clinical jobs you will interact with patients through offering patient education or assistance with insurance. A great way to learn about opportunities in clinical settings is to look at posted jobs long before you would be ready to apply. Over time, you will begin to see which types of jobs might appeal to you and what they require for qualifications and prior training (if any).

Will you be in a clinical setting outside of the U.S.? 

While you will seek to be effective and ethical in all clinical settings, in international settings you may also be navigating a new cultural and language context, differentials of power based on your positionality, and professional expectations that differ from your past experience or training. Please review these resources, then contact the pre-health office to discuss your planned, or past, clinical experiences abroad.

Guidelines for Students During Clinical Experiences Abroad These guidelines were approved by the Association of American Medical Colleges in 2011. 

Global Ambassadors for Patient Safety The University of Minnesota offers an excellent online workshop for anyone who will be interacting with patients outside of the United States.

First, Do No Harm: A Qualitative Research Documentary The film explores the ethics of global health clinical electives and volunteer projects in developing regions. It features interviews from experts and global health providers from Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America.