Even the biggest, baddest doctor started as a pion. So, how will you get your start? Your initial foray into medicine serves two important purposes. First, it convinces you that the field is actually for you (or perhaps that it is not for you, which is equally valuable). It effectively shows the same thing to admissions committees. Second, it lays groundwork from which you can build upon.
So, how do you get started? Well, there are two logical first steps in my mind. The first is to volunteer in a medical setting. This is very broad and encapsulates a ton of different settings, but ideally you want something that will allow you to interact with (or at least observe) physicians. The reason for this is that you ultimately need to determine if you want to follow in their footsteps. Volunteering elsewhere is certainly valuable, but it is then difficult to assess the ins and outs of a day in the life as a doctor. Shadowing could certainly help you overcome this hurdle, but we’ll touch on that in a minute, so hold tight. This leaves you with a few options, but honestly the best place to start is the internet. Visit the webpages of the places, such as clinics or hospitals, that you aspire to volunteer at. If you cannot find anything online, then visit them in person (yes, you can still do that in this digital age). I can almost guarantee you that your local emergency department has positions available, in which case you will be stocking rooms and providing patients with blankets and snacks to brighten their visits.
Now where ever you land, please be attentive! This will not only help you determine if this path is for you, but also provide fodder for the several essays your will write in your medical school applications, as well as your interviews. The kinds of things to be aware of range from simplistic to more esoteric. For instance, what intrigues you about the role of the physician? What kind of qualities do the patients’ appreciate? What are the stressors you notice and how are you equipped to tackle them or how will you work on what you see as potential weaknesses standing in the way of that? Are the patients’ needs being met in that particular setting? If not, how could things be improved? What are your thoughts on healthcare in the United States in general? The best way to organize all of this is in a journal. Therefore, I suggest you invest in one and then write some brief notes, in whatever format suits you, each day. This will pay dividends when it comes time to write about your experiences and reflect upon them for interviews!
Now, let’s get to a bit meatier topic. Do you need medical volunteering and how much to get into medical school? The short answer is yes. You are interested in pursuing medicine and what better way to show that then volunteer in the field. The particular type of volunteering is not as important in my mind. There are a few things that are important globally though. First, what was your impact? As a volunteer this does not have to be anything huge, but it is something you should pride yourself on and therefore be able to write and talk about. For instance, if you were in the emergency department, did you make it your mission to improve the visit of every patient you interacted with? How did you go about doing this? Second, what did you take away from the experience? This would include any and all reflections you had. Again, this shows curiosity, but perhaps more important to admissions committees is an awareness of your surroundings and desire to improve upon them. Last, it would be prudent to touch upon the duration of medical volunteering to be considered strong in this department. The important thing to stress here, which applies to all endeavors, is that continuity and quality reign. Basically, it is more important to have longitudinal, meaningful experiences versus several shorter stinted activities that likely mean far less. In short, find an opportunity you are passionate about and can dive into. There are so many things that exist in the volunteer sphere of medicine. Better yet, if something that you desire to pursue does not exist, create it yourself. How badass would that be? Once you find your passion, simply devoting a few hours a week to it (say three) over the course of a year would amount to upwards of 150 volunteering hours. That is quite a bit! What I am saying is that there is no magic number. What is magical though is if you commit yourself to something you find meaningful long-term and make a positive impact.
Moving along, shadowing is next. This is multifunctional, just like volunteering. You need to convince yourself (and admissions committees) of your zest for the career, but it can definitely be foundational and therefore be built upon. Getting started may be a bit trickier than with volunteering. An easy starting point is friends and family involved in medicine. They do not have to be a physician, as they can still introduce you to the world and grant you the opportunity to interact with physicians. This is where you can bust out your networking chops and hopefully make connections with said physicians yourself. If that is not an option, reach out to providers in your area. In my experience, showing initiative and eagerness to learn about the specialty will usually be rewarded. You may have particular interests in mind, but I encourage you to shadow broadly if possible. This is both for your own sake, but also conveys open-mindedness to admissions committees. You should treat this experience just like I encouraged you to treat the volunteering experience: be an inquisitive sponge (no need to provide a long list of questions again, you get the gist). And you guessed it, more journaling is in order ;). One more thing; make sure you observe all facets of the career to truly get a well-rounded picture. For instance, if you shadow a primary care physician, observe them interact with the electronic medical records (which is probably one of the most cited complaints, but may be less applicable to our generation). If you watch a surgical field, don’t just go to the operating room, as they spend lots of time out of the operating room as well. The length requirement for this one is a bit different than volunteering, reason being the variability in how schools view it. Some schools want lots of shadowing hours, while others just want you to convince yourself (and ultimately them) that this is the profession for you. Personally, I spent 40-50 hours with a single emergency room physician. This was certainly not the most well rounded experience and I could have had more hours, but I placed more emphasis on the less passive things. I will have an upcoming post in this, but basically this encapsulates employment in medicine. In my mind, you can only get so much out of passive experiences, hence my switch to the more active ones. However, if you want to secure a letter from whatever physicians you shadow, which you should, you need to spend a decent amount of time with them, otherwise your letter will not be top notch.
That wraps up my take on getting your feet wet in medicine. We have a lot to cover moving forward, but baby steps my friends, baby steps. Until next time!