By Joyce Fagel, Academic Counselor, UW Undergraduate Academic Affairs Advising and Shoreline Community College
Most advisers and students know that it is important for students to spend time in clinical settings, but why and how? In the meantime, some students report difficulty finding such opportunities as health professionals can be overrun by the multitude of student requests while also having to safeguard patient confidentiality and well-being.
Students need to observe how the health care system works, what various health professionals actually do, and how they themselves react to being in this setting. It is not the number of hours that is most important, though some schools will have a minimum hour requirement. More important are the student reflections and understanding they gained: What was positive, exciting about the experience? What was potentially troubling or uncomfortable? Can they see themselves working in this type of environment? Also: How well were the patients' needs met? What are the various roles of health professionals and which one do I think is the best fit for me? What about this profession is most appealing to me? How does it fit my strengths? It is critical to keep a journal with not only dates, places, contact info and hours, but also some notes about the experiences.
Volunteering: Unpaid opportunity to help in a health care setting. Depending on the environment, students might file paperwork, support family members in a waiting room, read a book to patients, escort patients within the building, etc.Most health care institutions will have a volunteer program that is easily accessible to students. Applying and getting started may take a few weeks or, if the program is full, a few months, and will typically include an orientation to the institution, HIPAA training (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), and a criminal background check. Most volunteer programs require a minimum commitment, for example 2 to 4 hours a week for six months.
Interviewing: Information interviewing is a technique used to explore jobs and professions in many career fields. It is a much shorter interaction, 30 minutes or so and can therefore be more easily obtained. In most situations the student will ask a health professional for 30 minutes of their time, and come prepared with questions.
Shadowing: Shadowing is an arrangement between an individual student and individual health professional, in which the student follows, or shadows, the professional for a specified number of hours as an observer. This gives the student a view of the day-to-day responsibilities of that health care provider as well as a role model of a particular provider. The experience should focus on watching; the student should not engage in conversation with patients. Shadowing can be critical, because as a volunteer the student may not spend significant time with a health professional of the type they are considering.
The three most common ways to set this up are:
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) in consultation with the National Association of Advisors for the Health Professions (NAAHP) and the American Medical Association (AMA) has recently published the Guidelines for Clinical Shadowing Experiences for Pre-medical Students. These include some description as well as a "Code of Conduct" and "Confidentiality" statement. Reviewing these beforehand will help students be better prepared as they contact health professionals.
The Association of American Medical Colleges web site also provides 1-2 page handouts on shadowing, volunteer opportunities, and many other topics (click on "Fact Sheet Library"). While these are written for pre-med students, much of the information is relevant to many health professions.
Students are very busy with their course work, paying job or other responsibilities. This makes it difficult to find time for gaining clinical experience. However, without it, they are not ready to apply to a health professional program. We can help remind and encourage students as well as help them think it through: What type of environment does s/he want to try out? Is there a particular issue, topic or population the student wants to be involved in? What kind of experience will give the student something new or a challenge?
If there isn't time now, during the quarter, what about during breaks or summer? Or, students can plan to do this after completing courses. Health professional programs do not require that students apply during their course work or immediately after. They will accept courses for several years upon completion; of course the exact time is specific to the program. Taking a "gap year" is very common and typically leads to stronger applicants/applications. More about the "gap year" in the Spring issue of the Transfer eNewsletter.