Clinical Observation ("Shadowing")
(Pre-OT, PT, and PA students)
Clinical observation (or shadowing - here, we use the terms interchangeably) is NOT the same thing as volunteering or direct patient care. Clinical observation is exactly what it sounds like: you are observing a healthcare professional provide care to patients or clients in a clinical setting, such as a hospital, therapy clinic, long term care facility, private practice, and so on. Through clinical observation experiences, you see what the day-to-day responsibilities of a given health career might involve within a given healthcare setting.
Volunteering, on the other hand, is when you provide unpaid help in a given setting. Sometimes the same setting may allow for both clinical observation experiences, as well as some volunteer opportunities. The best such experience would involve basic patient care or assisting opportunities. Anytime you undertake clinical observation, we encourage you to ask if there is anything you can do to help that would still allow you to be around the patients and the healthcare professional (for example, filing paperwork is not a particularly useful experience, but applying cold or hot packs in a PT clinic might be, since it would involve patient interaction.)
"Direct patient care" (most applicable to pre-physician assistant students) is also exactly what it sounds like: whether in a paid or voluntary capacity, you are literally providing patient healthcare of some kind. Pre-PA students, read the section pertaining to patient care on the HPPLC PA page.
Many health professions programs require that those considering the given profession undertake clinical observation prior to applying. Without exception, those programs which do not have a specific shadowing requirement nonetheless strongly recommend it. Refer to the Clinical Observation / Shadowing section of the HPPLC pre-OT, PT, or PA page for additional information, and check websites of individual programs to determine their specific requirements.
We suggest you begin to garner clinical observation experience over freshman year breaks if possible, and that you begin to identify, and arrange ahead of time, the shadowing experiences you plan to undertake during the summer after your freshman year.
We recommend you devote most of your time and effort during freshman year to acclimating yourself to college-level / IUB coursework, and to making your personal and academic transition from high school to college - learning how to study for college / IUB courses, acclimating yourself to college life and to the university in general, learning how to effectively manage your time, meeting with instructors and your advisor, and so on.
We can't stress enough the importance of establishing excellent time management and academic habits from the very beginning, as your academic performance will have a profound impact on your graduate school applications! Academics should never take a back seat to other activities, preprofessional or social. After freshman year, and once you are more certain you wish to pursue the profession you are considering, you can perhaps work additional clinical observation into your semester schedule.
Our detailed sample preprofessional timeline can give you a sense of what you should be doing right now, and also help you with your long range planning.
Clinical observation is clearly the best way for you to determine whether the daily responsibilities and the setting typical of the profession are a good fit for you, and whether you feel you have the aptitude and level of dedication necessary to develop the skills and attributes required of those who thrive and find fulfillment within the profession.
In addition, most health professions programs require some job shadowing, and these experiences can help you build your credibility with program admission committees by showing them that you have thoroughly researched the profession. Along those lines, extensive shadowing can greatly strengthen personal statements, letters of recommendation, and admission interviews.
Furthermore, most OT, PT, and PA programs require or recommend that at least one of your letters of recommendation come from a professional within the field with whom you have undertaken substantial clinical observation. While you should emphasize quality over quantity (being sure to meet minimum shadowing requirement for each program you are considering), more shadowing, especially in a variety of settings, can garner more experience from which to draw throughout the admission process.
Therefore, we strongly encourage you to arrange clinical observation fairly often, and in a variety of settings. "Variety of settings" means, for example, in-patient, out-patient, ICU, ER, family practice, hospitals, clinics, and so on - whatever pertains to your preprofessional area. That is not to say you must shadow in all settings, but simply that undertaking observation in a variety of settings is beneficial if you can reasonably arrange it. (Note that some programs will have specific requirements; for instance, a certain number of in- and out-patient observation hours. Check their websites.)
Take advantage of any connections you might have, such as family members, family friends, neighbors, or acquaintances who are members of the profession or who know someone who is in the profession. If you are pre-PA, you might also ask your family physician if he or she employs a PA with whom you could undertake clinical observation, or can refer you to any such resources. If you are pre-OT or PT, you too can ask your family physician for referrals. Physicians typically know people who work in other healthcare professions.
Each time you shadow a healthcare professional, ask if he or she can refer you to anyone else for shadowing. Networking in this manner can sometimes open the door to shadowing, service, or internship opportunities.
Use the internet
The internet is also an excellent tool for locating opportunities. For example, an internet search for "bloomington indiana physician assistants" yields useful results. One such result, www.healthline.com/doctors/physician-assistants has limited, but useful, state/city listings of PAs. If you are pre-PT or OT you can, of course, perform the same kind of search and come up with similarly useful results. If you want to locate professionals in other locations, then simply include the other location among your search terms.
How to request clinical observation
It is critically important that you conduct yourself in a thoroughly professional manner during all interactions with everyone, at all times; you represent both yourself and Indiana University. Most of our students do act in a very professional manner, yet we sometimes hear feedback from providers that students have skipped pre-arranged shadowing without notifying anyone ahead of time, cancel at the last minute, or been ill-mannered with support staff.
Remember that the professionals who allow you to shadow are not required to do so, and are essentially doing you a favor. Review the HPPLC page on professional etiquette and adopt any of the suggestions you have not already incorporated into your own conduct.
Arranging clinical observation
Some healthcare providers are very used to getting polite cold calls from students requesting clinical observation. That said, here is an alterative: You could mail, email, or hand deliver a professionally written résumé to each potential shadowing resource you have identified. Include a very brief, well-written cover letter (one or two paragraphs) in which you explain a little about yourself and your goals, including why you are interested in the profession and in undertaking clinical observation. Doing so can help you establish credibility as a serious-minded preprofessional student.
A couple of days later, you might make a follow-up phone call to see if they have received your résumé and have had time to review it for consideration. In light of HIPAA, students are finding it more challenging to find providers who are willing to allow shadowing. Polite professional persistence is your best strategy. If you have the option of utilizing summers and other breaks for shadowing in other locations, you should pursue those opportunities as well.
Click HERE for some additional ideas pertaining to résumés for prehealth students, and a link to resources that will help you draft an excellent résumé.
Additional suggestions for pre-PA students
If you are a pre-physician assistant student, you should also shadow some physicians to gain a better understanding of the differences between the two professions, how their responsibilities and duties overlap, and the different ways in which physicians supervise their PAs. PA program admission committees will sometimes ask interviewees to compare the two professions; as a practicing physician assistant, you will be working alongside physicians, so it simply makes sense for you to gain an understanding of that profession as well. And again, each time you shadow a PA or a physician, ask if he or she can refer you to anyone else for shadowing. (You might also read HPPLC's description of the two different kinds of physicians, allopathic (MD) and osteopathic (DO).
Additional suggestions for pre-OT and PT students
Consider shadowing both OTs and PTs. In some settings, OTs and PTs function very differently from each other, but in other settings they can function in similar ways. Having an understandings of these differences and similarities, and how they vary across settings, can help you better understand whichever one of the two you choose to pursue. This knowledge has the added benefit of potentially helping you during admissions interviews. It is likely you will have professional interaction with both OTs and PTs at some point in your career.
The focus is always on the patient
As you undertake clinical observation, remember that within the health professions the focus is always supposed to be on service to patients; on the caregiver-patient relationship, and effective rapport-building communication therein; and on patient advocacy. It's always about the patient, period.
Be engaged during your clinical observation
Within the patient-oriented context described above, be an engaged, active participant in your shadowing experiences by paying close attention, asking questions, and taking notes. Do not pressure yourself to recall from memory months or years from now the details of your current clinical observations. Doing so simply creates more stress for you. You will almost certainly incorporate details and experiences from your shadowing into your personal statement. You will also draw upon the same experiences during admission interviews, and even during clinical rotations during the professional program itself. If you invest a bit of time and effort now, you will thank yourself later.
Learning from opinions
Learning about the experiences and opinions of healthcare professionals is obviously central to your clinical observation experience, in addition to simply garnering a first-hand look at patient care. While the opinions and perspectives of those you shadow are valuable, and usually pretty well-informed, remember that the opinions and observations they express about the profession are just that: their own personal opinions and observations. Don't be confused if you hear three different perspectives from three different healthcare professionals! Take it all in, consider all perspectives, and then form your own impressions.
Keep a shadowing journal (take notes regarding your observation experiences)
- Ask the person you are shadowing if it's okay for you to have a pad and pen with you to jot down observations (while of course following patient privacy protocols).
- During your clinical observation experiences, ask lots of questions about the profession, the work routine, and so on. The notes you keep can serve as a launch pad or brainstorming tool for your personal statement.
- After each observation, spend fifteen or twenty minutes reflecting on the experience and writing down your thoughts. Assess and name the variety of skills and attributes the person you shadowed exhibited - ones that you believe are important to successful practice in the profession. What did you learn about the profession that you did not previously know, and/or how did the experience change your impressions about some aspect of the profession? Did the experience help confirm that this is the profession you wish to pursue? (If it had the opposite effect, pay attention to that as well - it does happen sometimes, and this is useful information! Come talk with a HPPLC advisor. We can help you weigh options and alternatives.)
- In your journal, occasionally record in specific detail interactions you yourself had with a given OT, PT, or PA which impacted your decision to pursue the profession or taught you something you did not previously know about the given profession.
- Similarly, we suggest that on occasion you record details relating a specific interaction the OT, PT, or PA had with a patient which impacted your decision to pursue the profession, or which expanded your understanding of the profession. (Always keep the patient anonymous, of course - you can give them fictional names in your journal if that helps - and adhere to patient privacy protocols.) The pay off for this small investment of time and effort is that when you are writing your personal statement or being interviewed, you will be able to be very specific: "One time I was shadowing a OT / PT / PA at such and such a place, and here is exactly what I saw, and here is exactly how that particular experience reinforced my understanding of the profession and my decision to be an OT, PT, or PA." This level of specificity can greatly enhance a personal statement or interview. Vagueness and over-generalization are the enemies of a strong application. Keeping a journal is one way to avoid these pitfalls.
Record your hours
Different programs require that observation hours be reported in different ways. Sometimes they have their own required, printable forms, sometimes they don't; some programs require application through a central application services (CAS), which will have its own reporting process, and some don't. You will need to confirm procedures with each program to which you plan to apply. Always check the web first, and then contact them if you need clarification.
In the meantime, especially prior to when you know exactly where you plan to apply, you need a way to record hours so that you can later report this information in whichever ways your pogroms prefer or require, whether they use a CAS or not. You should record hours for all related experiences, be they paid or voluntary, formal internships, or simply observation hours you arranged. Thoroughly recording this information will make it much easier to report hours during the application process.
- Keep a log of your observation experience, including the following information:
- the name and title of the person with whom you spent time
- their contact information, including their email address, if possible
- date and number of hours you spent with them
- the name and street address of the setting
- the type of setting (in-patient, out-patient, critical care, etc.)
- whether paid or voluntary
- whether a paid job, an internship, or simply observation hours you arranged
- You could also ask them to sign the entry in case a given program requires more formal reporting of hours. In this case, you might want to keep your log in a notebook. Alternatively, you could ask if their office would be willing to put your observation hours, the date, etc. in a brief note on office letterhead, along with the signature of the person you shadowed. The latter can be helpful if the person with whom you spent time is no longer there when it comes time for you to apply.
- If you happen to know you are applying to a particular program that does have its own form, print it, fill it out after shadowing, and ask the person you shadowed to sign it, if required. File it away until you turn in your application.
- Applications through a CAS such as OTCAS, PTCAS, and CASPA, have a section where you formally report your hours. In this case, you will enter the information you kept in your log, but each CAS will have its own particular way in which hours must be reported. Consult CAS FAQs and application instructions, and follow directions closely.
- Pre-PT students: closely follow the PTCS directions for verifying and reporting your observation hours. PTCAS requires that the person you shadowed confirm your hours within the application itself. However, this does not happen until the summer you apply; prior to that, you should still record hours as described above. You may or may not need to report hours separately to individual programs, as we've indicated above.
- Pre-PA students: the CASPA FAQ, "Work and Volunteer Experience," includes information about reporting observation hours. You will report hours through CAPSA, and may or may not need to report them separately to individual programs, as we've indicated above.
- Pre-OT students: the OTCAS instructions have important information about the details you should include when you report your hours; for example, if possible, the OT's license number and the state in which they received their license; the specific type of OT setting, e.g., children and youth, mental health, etc. Consult OTCAS > Instructions > Additional Information. You may or may not need to report hours separately to individual programs, as we've indicated above.
- As noted already, not every program uses a CAS, and even some that do may still require you to report hours directly to the program itself using their own forms (for instance, as part of a secondary or supplemental application in addition to the central application service process). In these instances, if you have kept a careful record of your clinical observation experiences as described above, you will be able to use it to fill out subsequent forms.
- Note: you might then still need the given professional whom you shadowed to sign the program's form (usually printed from their website). If you have gotten the professional's signature in your log next to the listings of the hours you spent with them, it will save you time and effort if you need to ask them later to sign a formal observation or volunteering form for a given program.
This information was prepared for Indiana University Bloomington students by the Health Professions and Prelaw Center. Please note that specific requirements and policies can change at any time without notice. Students are responsible for obtaining the most current information directly from application and testing services, and the schools and programs in which they have an interest. Refer to each program's web pages, bulletins, and other publications for the most current information. Students are responsible for understanding degree course requirements, as well as other requirements, policies, and procedures related to the degree(s) they are pursuing; for enrolling in appropriate courses; for understanding IU policies/procedures; and for following through properly with regard to all of the preceding.