How to shadow a physician assistant

September 4, 2020

Article by Global Pre-Meds
Hospital doctor shadowing & global health experience programs.

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Most physician assistant schools require medical shadowing hours in addition to other healthcare experience, before they will accept you as a pre-PA student. In this article, we explain how to shadow a physician assistant so that you can enhance your resume. 

At Global Pre-Meds, we support pre-health students in getting the most out of their clinical shadowing hours through our abroad programs. As a pre-PA student, we want to help you get the best experience on hospital front lines as you start your career as a physician assistant.

We also understand the difficulty in getting those hospital observation hours during the COVID-19 global pandemic. We have adjusted our health and safety protocols so that you can get your clinical shadowing hours safely with Global Pre-Meds.

How important is medical shadowing for pre-PAs?

Each physician assistant school is a bit different when it comes to their requirements for shadowing. You should always check with the program you want to apply to before you plan to include any healthcare experience hours on your application.

According to the Physician Assistant Education Association, the median number of shadowing hours for accepted PA students in 2019-2020 was 94 hours. Some pre-PA students had way more than that. It really depends on your program and the other components of your application. But either way, you’re probably going to need to shadow to make your PA school application stand out.

Shadowing is also the best way for you to learn if the medical field is right for you. You will get a first hand look at what it’s like to work on hospital frontlines. Whether you’re shadowing a doctor, a physician assistant, or a nurse, you’ll get to see the inner workings of a hospital and ask healthcare professionals your burning questions.

If you join our hospital doctor shadowing program, we will make sure that you receive at least 40 observation hours at the hospital. Those 40 hours are active learning hours where you are observing procedures, putting on and learning about Personal Protective Equipment, or asking your mentor questions.

How do I get shadowing hours as a pre-PA?

Physician assistants do it all. Since PAs can be found in almost every specialty, it’s good to get a variety of observation hours.

If you already know a physician assistant, that can be your foot in the door to finding someone to shadow. If they can’t help you by allowing you to observe them, perhaps they know of someone who would be interested.

Depending on where you live, it may be more difficult for you to find a physician assistant to shadow. The American Academy of Physician Assistants has a list of state PA organizations that offer professional development, education, and networking opportunities. You can always reach out to them or attend their events to find PAs in your area, and it’s a great way to start building those connections.

While it will still be important for you to get hours specifically with a PA, it’s also important for you to understand the roles of other healthcare professionals, like a doctor or nurse practitioner. Shadowing gives you the understanding of these roles so that you can make an informed decision about why you chose to be a physician assistant.

We have a resource that discusses how you can ask to shadow a doctor that may be helpful to you in this process as you ask to observe healthcare professionals. You can always research physician assistants near you and email or call them. It may take you some time to find a doctor or physician to shadow, and you will need enough hours to make your PA school application competitive. Prepare to be persistent.

At Global Pre-Meds we have already identified excellent hospitals and mentoring doctors. If you are looking for an interesting experience abroad that will guarantee you 40 observational hours, you may want to consider one of our programs. All you need to do is apply!

What should I expect shadowing a physician assistant? 

Even if you feel unsure about how to shadow a physician assistant, know that shadowing is an exciting opportunity for any pre-health and pre-PA student. 

Physician assistants treat, diagnose, manage patients, assist in surgeries — you name it. The versatility and flexibility of physician assistants is one of the reasons people are interested in this medical profession. They run the gamut, and you should be prepared for anything.

Like any job experience, you should treat it like the professional opportunity it is. Healthcare workers are busy people, and they are taking the time to let you observe. Be grateful and don’t waste your time or theirs by not getting the most out of it.

Dress appropriately. If you are shadowing a physician assistant, confirm the dress code with them before your first day. When you are in an office it may be appropriate for you to wear business casual attire. If the PA is in the operating room, you can be more casual, but you should still look presentable.

Make sure you are on time to every shift. That means you need to understand when you will be shadowing, where you will be meeting them, and how long you will be allowed to observe them for. A good general rule is that being early is actually being on time.

Pay attention and learn as much as you can! It’s good to take a notebook with you and make note of any questions you want to ask, as well as the cases you see. This is important for your records, but it also helps when you see a similar case in the future, and you’ll know what to do.

The most important thing to remember when you are shadowing is to stay out of the way. Don’t interrupt your mentor with your questions. Wait for them to finish with a patient before you ask. Physician assistants usually work with patients constantly and you should never get in the way of providing care.

If you show the doctor, nurse, or PA that you are shadowing a passion for learning and an interest in medicine, they can write you a letter of recommendation. Keep in mind that their letter will be honest so it’s up to you to provide a good impression during your shadowing experience.

Our mentors at Global Pre-Meds offer you a personal letter of recommendation upon completion of our hospital doctor shadowing program. They will spend two weeks and 40 hours with you, so they will have a good understanding of who you are and your potential in the medical field.

PA school can be very competitive. The job of physician assistant generally requires less time in school, but with many of the benefits and training of a physician. It would be to your advantage to find ways to make your PA school application stand out with quality shadowing and health care experiences.

At Global Pre-Meds we offer a highly unique program that gives you a global healthcare perspective as you shadow a doctor abroad. As a PA, you will be interacting with many patients, from different backgrounds. Getting experience with patients from different countries, and understanding healthcare in an international context, can help you be a better PA and a more interesting applicant.

You can learn more about our programs here.