Shadowing health professionals is an immersive way to learn about careers in health.
There are overlaps in what you can learn through shadowing and informational interviewing. We encourage you to do both. When you shadow, you will observe first-hand many of the things about which you might talk with a health professional during an informational interview. If you do not have a personal connection with a health professional before shadowing, it often works well to ask this person to meet for an informational interview before you ask for an opportunity to shadow. This allows you to connect and develop rapport before shadowing. It also allows the health professional to commit to a short meeting with you before committing to the longer learning experience of shadowing.
Please find more guidance on shadowing below.
I have found it valuable to observe the interactions between hospital staff and between staff and patients. Seeing how all of these parts of the surgery process come together to form one cohesive unit has been very interesting.Katie Schleck, UW '17
Is shadowing required?
Shadowing is highly recommended. Some health professional programs — e.g., most physical and occupational therapy programs — require observation hours. All health professional programs highly value shadowing experiences. Shadowing demonstrates to health professional programs that you have studied the profession for which they are accredited to train you. They want to know that you know from first-hand knowledge what professionals in your field of interest do in day-to-day work, that you have talked with and learned from professionals in your field of interest, and that you have a clear understanding of what you are committing to in seeking professional training for this field.
How can I find a health professional to shadow?
Start with people you know.
- Do you — or does anyone you know — know a health professional?
- Have you — or has anyone you know — ever, as a patient, visited a health professional?
- Would you feel comfortable reaching out to one (or all) of these people to ask about shadowing?
Begin volunteering in a health care setting and get to know the health professionals who work there.
- Volunteer positions might put you in the closest touch with health professionals who work in fields you do not plan to pursue (e.g., you may want to be a physical therapist, but you interact most with RNs when you volunteer in the Emergency Department at The American Center).
- Get to know and learn from these people. Shadow them. And ask them to connect you with their colleagues in your field of interest.
Use clinic and hospital directories to find contact information for health professionals.
- Cold-emailing / cold-calling does work. It may be uncomfortable, and it may take time. But we see students find opportunities to shadow by reaching out to health professionals they do not know.
- If you do this, remember that it is a good idea to ask health professionals you do not know to do an informational interview before you ask to shadow them. Learn more about informational interviews.
Do clinics and hospitals have policies for shadowing?
Yes, clinics and hospitals have policies on shadowing, such as having a physician sponsor you or for you to be a hospital volunteer before you are allowed to shadow. It is important to find the information you need regarding shadowing policies for clinics and hospitals where you want to shadow before trying to gain this experience. If you are interested in shadowing at a UW Health facility, Meriter, or a Dean clinic, please find links below to information you will need. For all other clinics and hospitals, please visit websites.
- UW Health (including UW Hospital & Clinics, The American Family Children’s Hospital, and The American Center): Non-Physician Observer Request/Job Shadowing
- Meriter Unity Point Health: Volunteering, Internships and Shadowing
- Dean Clinics: There is no formal process for applying to shadow at Dean clinics. Students are expected to contact providers individually and arrange shadowing opportunities.
How can I grow my shadowing network?
Great question. This is a key part of shadowing. The goal of shadowing is breadth of experience. This means that the ideal situation is not you shadowing the same health professional in the same setting for 80 hours. A much more ideal situation is you shadowing multiple health professionals in multiple settings. How do you arrange this? Whenever you shadow of health professional, after this experience, ask if this person will connect you with a colleague in another clinic or another department of the hospital who they think may be willing to meet with you. Remember that it is a good idea to ask this other health professional to meet for an informational interview before you ask to shadow them.
In addition, it is a great idea to shadow health professionals in fields you do not plan to pursue. This will help you learn about multiple professional roles on health care teams. It will also give you the opportunity to crystallize your reflections on why you will serve best in the role you are pursuing.
How should I ask health professionals if I can shadow them?
Health care professionals are often very happy to talk with students. You can help them respond to your request to meet by explaining clearly why you want to talk with them. For example, when you reach out to a health professional, you might do the following.
- Tell them why you are reaching out to them specifically. Maybe someone recommended them or they work in a health care field that interests you.
- Share a little about yourself — e.g., where you go to school, healthcare or research experience you have, your professional goals.
- And this goes without saying — always be courteous, respectful, show awareness of their busy schedule, and express appreciation for whatever they have time to do with/for you, even if this is limited to responding to your call/email.
If a health professional says “no,” do not take it personally. Health professionals are busy, and they may have to say no for reasons beyond their control. Do not be discouraged if you get a “no.” You will eventually get a “yes” if you stick with it.
Click here for a template to use when drafting an e-mail to a professional to about shadowing opportunities.
How long should I shadow?
After you find someone who is willing to let you shadow, ask how much time this person would like to plan on having you shadow. They may have had students shadow in the past and have a set way they like to offer this experience.
We see shadowing opportunities range from a day to a few hours per week. Some health professionals may be willing to arrange several weeks or months of shadowing with you. We encourage you to spend as much time shadowing health professionals as you want and they are willing to offer. You may meet someone you want to learn more from than you can learn in 8 or 12 hours of shadowing. That is great. We also encourage you to remember that the goal of shadowing is breadth of experience. And as we say above, this means the ideal situation is not you shadowing the same health professional in the same setting for 80 hours. A much more ideal situation is you shadowing multiple health professionals in multiple settings.
What are some things to keep in mind when I shadow?
- Each clinic and hospital has specific expectations for shadowing in their facility. Know their rules and expectations prior to shadowing.
- Dress professionally and comfortably.
- Feel free to ask questions and take notes in between patients but not in front of them. Prepare questions ahead of time. Please see our informational interview page for ideas.
- The health care professional is required to introduce you as a pre-health student to each patient. There may be patients who are uncomfortable having you in the room during an exam or appointment, so you may be asked to step out. Other patients might engage you in conversation. Regardless of your level of interaction with patients, you must keep all patient information confidential.
- Plan your transportation to the shadowing site in advance. Use the Metro Transit website to plan your trip if you do not own a car. The following bus routes will get you to or within a short walking distance to the local hospitals:
- UW Hospital/American Family Children’s Hospital/William S. Middleton Memorial Veteran’s Hospital: 1, 2, 10, 11, 15, 28, 37, 38, 44, 48, 56, 57, 70, 71, 80, 84, W1, W3
- Meriter Hospital: 4, 5, 6, 7, 13, 27, 47, 48, 82, W1, W3, W5, W7, X06
- St. Mary’s Hospital: 4, 5, 13, 44, 47, 48, 75, W5, W7, X04
What should I do after I shadow?
Write thank you notes. If you had a great experience with a health professional, ask this person if you can keep in touch. Reflect in writing about what you saw and what you learned. Create a spreadsheet (or whatever you want to use) to keep track of dates, hours, and contact information for all your shadowing experiences. All of this will come in handy when you are applying to health professions programs! And remember to keep everything you observe when you shadow completely confidential.