As you explore the top physician assistant degree programs, there’s a good chance you will come across a term that may be unfamiliar to you in a medical sense: shadowing. Shadowing a medical professional means observing that practitioner in a clinical setting to learn more about the practice of medicine. Prior to enrolling in a PA program, the experience you gain shadowing a healthcare professional – especially a licensed physician assistant – can help you learn more about the PA career and scope of practice. Some of this experience may even count toward your direct care experience requirements that help you qualify for admission into PA school.
What to Expect When Shadowing a Physician Assistant
Shadowing doesn’t mean practicing medicine or providing any degree of patient care personally. There’s no pressure, at this point, to know how to draw blood, insert lines or perform other clinical duties. This level of hands-on work is reserved for the clinical rotations you will perform in the later parts of your physician assistant master’s degree program, after you have completed more extensive coursework in science and medicine.
At this early stage of your career preparation – before you begin applying to master’s degree programs in PA studies – it’s all about observing the work of a qualified practitioner. Instead of learning by doing, you’re in the stage of learning by watching. There’s also value in being able to ask a physician assistant all of your questions about studying to become a PA, getting licensed and working in the occupation. While it’s a good idea to ask about topics like getting into a PA master’s degree program and studying for the Physician Assistant National Certifying Exam (PANCE) test that is required for licensure, this is also a good opportunity to talk about matters like work-life balance.
Some students begin shadowing physician assistants and other medical professionals even before they graduate high school. Others only start shadowing someone during their undergraduate studies or after deciding to go back to school for a master’s degree.
How to Find a Shadowing Opportunity as an Aspiring PA Student
You don’t have to shadow someone to get into PA school, but it’s wise to do this anyway. Many other forms of experience in a healthcare setting can meet your direct clinical patient experience requirements – and do so more effectively than shadowing does – but shadowing provides a unique opportunity. It’s about more than clinical experience. Even if you earned your undergraduate degree in nursing and acquired years of experience as a registered nurse prior to applying to PA school, you wouldn’t develop that firsthand knowledge of what it’s like to be a physician assistant. Shadowing a PA, even briefly, gives you a glimpse into what life as a physician assistant is actually like on a day to day basis.
Shadowing doesn’t have to be a lengthy or involved process. Some shadowing experiences last only a matter of a few days, while others go on longer. You may even choose to shadow a couple of different physician assistants who work in distinct specialties and types of facilities so you can get a taste for different paths within the career.
There are several ways you can seek out a licensed physician assistant to shadow. Your undergraduate instructors may be able to introduce you to someone in the field. You may be able to tap into an alumni network to find a licensed professional who is willing to give back to their college community through a shadowing arrangement. Ask about shadowing opportunities at your own doctor’s office or reach out to established PAs in local hospitals, clinics and other medical facilities, which sometimes have shadowing programs in place.
Taking part in extracurricular activities and volunteer work can help you cultivate your professional network early on in your career preparation. The more you put yourself out there in the healthcare field, the greater your opportunities for shadowing a PA or doctor.
Making the Most of Your Shadowing Experience
Shadowing is an unpaid learning experience. You might think that, if you’re going to be spending your time in a medical facility, you might as well apply for an administrative job role that will allow you to get paid while you do so. However, while experience you might gain as a medical office receptionist or administrative medical assistant is valuable, it misses the whole point of the shadowing experience. When you shadow a licensed physician assistant, you get to personally see how this medical professional interacts with patients and how they handle challenges – whether those challenges mean delivering unwanted and unexpected news or dealing with a difficult medical condition or patient.
If you are able to make a connection with the PA you are shadowing, that person may even be willing to write you a letter of reference when it comes time to apply to a physician assistant master’s degree program.