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Clinical Experience

Experience in a medical environment is essential to preparing for medical school. If you apply to medical school but your application shows little or no direct exposure to the practice of medicine, you will not be convincing to an admissions committee. Students must get experience in a medical environment in order to make an informed decision to pursue a career in medicine.

[A student volunteer.]
Premed student Rob Cantor working at the Bloomington Hospital Emergency Room.

Many students are initially attracted to the idea of becoming a doctor in childhood or high school. This is quite understandable, as a medical career provides extremely rewarding opportunities to contribute to the lives and well-being of others. However, you need to develop a more mature perspective on the career of a physician through direct exposure to medicine in college.

Shadowing a physician is one of the best ways to get direct exposure to medical practice and learn what it really is like to work as a doctor. Many students are able to arrange shadowing initially through a family physician. If you do not have any personal contacts with physicians you may wish to send a letter and resume to some physicians asking for the opportunity to shadow.

As important as arranging for clinical opportunities is taking the right approach to them. Shadowing is more than "following a doctor around," but instead provides an opportunity to begin the learning process that will extend throughout your education as a medical student and your career as a physician. Much of your education in medical school will be built upon observation in clinical settings. You will need to learn how to be a good observer as a medical student. Begin the process now as a premed student.

Some students are initially frustrated when shadowing or volunteering because they are eager to begin providing direct patient care, and instead feel they are somewhat of a "fly on the wall." You will get more out of these experiences if you learn to slow down and observe the details of what takes place. Watch how healthcare personnel work together, how physicians conduct health histories, and how they interact with patients. If you feel you are not getting enough out of the experience, you may not be training yourself to the degree that you should in the observation of human behavior.

You should not think of clinical experiences simply in terms of putting in a requisite number of hours to meet a minimal requirement for admission to medical school. As important as devoting the time to gaining this experience is what you learn through it. When you reach the application stage, you will need to be prepared to discuss your experiences with medicine in detail during your interviews with medical schools. Keeping a premed journal throughout your undergraduate years in which you record your experiences can help you prepare for this crucial stage of the application process.

Clinical experience can have an added benefit for premed students. Sometimes students struggle academically because they lack the exposure to medicine that could provide them with a clear understanding of the challenges of a medical career. If you only have a vague understanding of your goal, you may find that your academic performance is half-hearted and unfocused. Sorting out what you really want to do is sometimes the key to success. Extensive clinical experience can help you clarify your goals. If the goal in front of you is clear, and you have a realistic understanding of the challenges of a medical career, it may help motivate you to stay on track and persevere through a very rigorous series of premed courses and a very challenging exam, the MCAT.

The Health Professions and Prelaw Center coordinates a Bloomington Hospital Emergency Room Volunteer Program that provides opportunities for students to gain experience in a medical environment. Through this program students can learn about how an emergency department functions. However, students in the program may have only limited contact hours with physicians, and so they should not rely on this program alone for all of their clinical experience. A combination of shadowing and working or volunteering in a hospital can provide the best overview of medicine as a profession. Students are accepted for the ER Volunteer Program only three times a year, at the beginning of the fall, spring, and summer terms at Indiana University. If you are interested in participating you will need to subscribe to the HPPLC premed email list. Watch for an announcement on the premed list that applications are currently being taken and submit one at that time.