One of the more critical experiences for premed students is exposure to patients in a clinical setting. This type of experience will allow you to ensure that you enjoy working with patients and that you are well suited for a career in medicine. The medical schools expect that you will have spent time working with patients, either as a volunteer or in a paid position. While there is no set number of hours for this experience, a common guideline is to attempt to gain 500 hours before you apply. Again, this is just a suggestion and by no means a required amount. Instead of focusing on the number of hours, you should instead focus on the type of experience and the benefits for both you and the patients you serve.
One of the more difficult aspects of clinical experience as an undergraduate student is that in most cases you are not yet trained to do clinical work. Often, this means that you are restricted in what you can do in a health care setting. However, there are a variety of options for meaningful clinical experiences as an undergraduate. Many of the various types of clinical experience are described below, and you should read over them to see which one is a good fit for you and your schedule.
Shadowing a Physician
Shadowing involves following a physician during his or her daily activities. This type of experience will give you a realistic view of the career that you have chosen. This is an opportunity to see how a medical team works together and to understand both the positive and negative aspects of the life of a physician. It is recommended that you shadow physicians in a number of specialties so that you can obtain exposure to many different fields. It is also recommended that you shadow a number of different physicians to obtain different viewpoints on the profession. While shadowing is useful for the student to understand the career field, it is often limited in interaction with patients and therefore should not be the only type of clinical experience you gain before applying to medical school. To get involved in shadowing, simply call physicians to determine if one would be willing to let you come and visit. Be aware that privacy laws may prevent you from observing in some situations or specific patients.
Volunteering without any certification
This is the most common type of clinical experience and it simply involves volunteering your time at a health care facility. Because you do not have any training, you may be limited in what you are actually doing, but you will still be able to observe how a medical team functions and the roles of each individual. Often, you will be able to interact socially with patients (instead of medically) and this will teach you how to interact with individuals who are sick or in need of care. It may also give you the opportunity to work with families of patients and teach you how to sympathize with their situations as well. To volunteers at a health care facility, simply call the facility to see if they accept volunteers. Some of the larger hospitals and clinics may even have a volunteer coordinator who will work with you.
Certified Nurse Aide (CNA)
A CNA is a person who assists the registered nurses as they perform their duties. CNAs often work in assisted living facilities, nursing homes, or provide in-home care, but they are also employed by hospitals and clinics. To become a CNA, you will need to take courses at the community college level to obtain your certification. Aims Community College offers these courses: one is a four credit course entitled Nurse Aide Health Care Skills and the second course is a one credit course entitled Nurse Aide Clinical Experience. Other local community colleges offer similar courses to obtain certification. Many premed students who wish to obtain their CNA do so during the summer or during a regular semester if their schedules allow. There are often open paid positions for CNAs at a number of nursing home and other facilities. Although the job is not an easy one, it will provide you with direct interaction with patients and will give you a realistic view of one aspect of the health care field. Becoming a CNA is a great way to determine if you truly enjoy working with patients and if health care is a good fit for you.
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
An EMT is someone who is trained to respond to emergency medical situations, typically outside of a health care facility. There are different levels of training for EMTs, including EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate and EMT-Paramedic. Each subsequent level requires more training and most premed students who go this route choose EMT-Basic certification. This type of training is provided by local community college and Aims Community College offers EMT-Basic training. The requirements for this certification are two courses: EMS 125 which is 9 credits and EMS 170 which is one credit. After completing these courses, students can then sit for the national exams to obtain certification. The advantage of obtaining EMT training for the premed student is that he or she can then directly perform medical care on patients and will gain exposure to emergency medicine. It is a great way to observe medical teams as they work and gain satisfaction from being able to help those in need. However, the patient care is limited to emergency situations only, and this type of medicine is only one small aspect of the overall field, so shadowing or working in non-emergency situations would also be beneficial.
Medical Missions Trips
Many students take advantage of the opportunities to become involved in medical missions trips. These are trips that are taken by medical professionals to areas of the world where access to medical care is severely limited. Most trips require that students pay for their own transportation and fees associated with the trip. These trips are a great way to combine travel and medical experience as well as gain exposure to a totally different culture. Students with CNA or EMT training can often use their skills on these trips and even those with no certification can act in supportive roles. While these trips are a great experience, it is not recommended that this be your only type of clinical experience. Because you will primarily be practicing medicine in the US, it is important that you gain exposure to the US medical system as well. Medical missions trips are usually considered a wonderful way to supplement your clinical experience.
Phlebotomy: this is the practice of drawing blood and you can take courses at the community college level to become a phlebotomist. These positions will provide you with direct patient care, but in a limited setting and with brief exposure to each patient. You are often exposed to only a small aspect of the health care field, so it is recommend that if you choose this type of clinical experience that you also volunteer or shadow in a wider range of specialties.
Medical assistant: medical assistants often work in clinics and family practices. The medical assistant is often the one who takes the initial complaint, records height, weight and blood pressure and fills out preliminary paperwork. There are training programs for medical assistants available at the community colleges. Medical assisting will provide you with exposure to the family practice setting and will also allow direct interaction with patients. However, most physicians are reluctant to hire a medical assistant who is also in college, and often want someone who can accept a full time position.