Why is shadowing a PA important?
Shadowing a PA is one of the best ways to actually realize that your end goal is in fact to become a PA. That and it gives you a better understanding of their role on a healthcare team. Shadowing entails following around a PA and observing first-hand what their daily life is like. Most (if not all) PA schools require it, some more hours than others, so there's really no way around it. Over the years, it has become very apparent to me that students coming right out of high school more often than not gravitate towards the fields they've already been exposed to. This makes sense right? Students have been surrounded by teachers their whole lives. They’ve been to a doctor. They've seen a police officer or a firefighter in action. They've talked with their cousin working for that one high-end magazine company. Or that aunt or uncle who is a very successful attorney in the city. How can you chose a career path that you have no idea exists? A lot of students take an interest in the sciences and think medical school is the only option, yet there are so many other paths to take; each path with their own unique roles, hours, salary, pros, cons, perks, and challenges. I was no exception to this mentality. I loved science, so I assumed the most successful thing I could do was become a doctor. I was on the pre-med track my entire freshman year, having never even heard of a physician assistant until the end of that same year. Side note: I'm not positive, but I'm pretty sure I first heard about PAs from my mom after she watched her daily episode of "Good Morning America" featuring new, hot, up-and-coming career trends LOL. Thanks GMA? Thanks mom? Anyways, college students seeking the perfect future career, tend to always focus their attention on salary alone and allow that to drive their ambition. But, as you enter your 20's and as you start to picture your 30's, your traveling years, your childbearing years, your homeowner years, then aspects like length of schooling, debt, freedom, family planning, and work-life balance start to make their way up to the forefront of your priority list. How can we expect people to make an informed decision if they've never had the exposure is all I'm getting at. And shadowing is the answer.
How can I set up my own shadowing hours?
When it comes to setting up shadowing hours, there's three main avenues to go down: the easy way, the in-between way, and the hard way. I personally did all three methods, so take your pick or try them all to maximize your results. It may seem like setting up your shadowing hours is impossible at times, but do not get discouraged, everyone willing to put in the time and effort finds a way.
The easy way: family members. This is an almost guaranteed yes. That's what makes it so easy. People you already have a strong relationship with are going to tend to (in general) want to help you in your career pursuits. A simple phone call or email to a PA in your family should do the trick.
The in-between way: friends of friends, your personal PA, and Facebook posts. Send out an email blast to your friends and family asking if they know anyone who you could connect with. Six degrees of separation should work in your favor here. If you personally see a PA as your primary care provider or if you know there are PAs in your PCP's office, give them a call. Maybe you have a strong relationship with your PCP already. Even simpler. And use your resources! Use social media to your advantage. Make a post stating your intentions and I guarantee at least one person will reply with help.
The hard way: cold calls and cold reach-outs, aka the true go-getter method. A lot of pre-PAs are stuck with this method if the other two ways fail. And that is okay! We all do it. You aren't doomed. Call your local hospital's human resources department. Contact a provider online cold turkey. They've been in your shoes. They know what you're going through. And maybe you'll get lucky and one will reach out back to you.
My biggest word of advice is to set up shadowing with multiple PAs in multiple different specialties to really strengthen your application. This will show ambition and a deeper understanding of PAs and their wide range of abilities. In addition, it definitely does not hurt to also shadow doctors and NPs as well. However, I would try to shadow more PAs than docs and NPs to clearly state your intentions. Gaining the knowledge necessary in making an informed decision is encouraged, in my eyes. Know what sets the three professions apart. So setting up hours is as easy/ as hard as that. Sending all pre-PAs the best of luck in this kingdom, we know the struggle is real at times, but we've all been there and you can do it too.
What kind of shadowing experiences did you have?
I started out the "easy way" by shadowing my aunt who is a nurse practitioner at Johns Hopkins in the NICU. She was my main inspiration for becoming a mid-level practitioner and volunteering as a patient cuddler. After my experience with her in the NICU, I had a strong interest in neonatology. Who doesn't love adorable newborns? I mean it’s a hard patient population to hate on. I got to see my aunt's responsibilities seeing patients on her own, creating a plan, proposing that plan on rounds to her attending, and discussing treatment plans with her team. I didn't know much medicine at this point in my education, so I was pretty in awe of all the medical lingo being bounced around. It was a fabulous introduction to what a mid-level practitioner is capable of and to the medical field in general. Forever grateful for family members like her!
Then I started using the "in-between" method by contacting friends of friends. I shadowed a friend's dad who is a nurse practitioner at University Hospital in otolaryngology surgery. This was my first exposure to the operating room. I was able to be in the OR observing entire surgeries from a step stool right next to the operating table! It was love at first sight. I highly recommend shadowing in the OR if surgery is a potential interest of yours.
Then I put out a Facebook blast asking for anyone to reach out if they had any connections to PAs. Sure enough, one of my high school friends reached out and said that her dad was a doctor at my local hospital and that he knew a PA willing to let me shadow him. There, I shadowed a PA in inpatient cardiology. I was able to follow him around the hospital as he checked up on his patients, wrote notes, and handled patient emergencies on the floor.
Lastly, I shadowed a PA at my local hospital in the emergency department. After shadowing the PA in cardiology, he actually offered to contact his PA friend in the emergency department for me given that I was not an "annoying shadow". If you're not a pain and you're a pleasant person to be around you will be rewarded, I promise. This is why you follow proper shadow etiquette. A little courtesy goes a long way. I'll throw in some additional tips below on how to do so. The ED is a great way to see a lot of patient cases in a short amount of time, so I highly recommend the ED for shadowing. Given all the action and high acuity, I was the least bored in the ED and in the OR for sure.
What tips do you have while shadowing a PA?
Yes, there is a such thing as being a good shadow and being a bad shadow. PAs are at work while you are hovering over them. And they have responsibilities. A lot of them. So having someone watching them all day can be exhausting if you make it. First and foremost, let them do their job. Do everything you can not to interfere with their work ethic and productivity. On the flip side, you are there to learn things. That being said, DO NOT ask a million questions a minute. That's probably the most common mistake made by a bad shadow. At the same time, don't be silent and scared. They were in your position once, so they understand your curiosity. Seems like common sense, but I have seen both ends of the spectrum. Ask well-thought-out questions if you have them scattered evenly throughout your encounter with them. Be an active observer and be an active listener to their answers. Nothing is worse than an unenthused student or a bad listener. In my book, there actually are dumb questions. Not in terms of medical content, but in terms of regular human interaction content. For example, maybe don't ask the PA what she brought for lunch because you're hungry or when you can go home. I swear, I've heard both asked on rotations by shadows and literally cringed. Pay attention to their daily routine and be proactive. Learn by example and replicate what you see to be helpful. Assist with anything "idiot-proof" that you clearly do not need a medical degree for. I was able to assist in anything from restraining a child getting his forehead sutured in the ED to handing people Band-Aids. Yes, you're shadowing, but don't make yourself useless. If you're looking to be an even better shadow, read up on topics you see during the day, so you can have a more educated conversation with the PA you are shadowing the following day. A few UpToDate paragraphs will really embellish your experience. Lastly, be aggressive with your search for the perfect shadowing opportunity for you. The more interested in the specialty you are shadowing, the richer the experience will be. Also, understand that like volunteering, some hospitals have long and tedious credentialing requirements to start shadowing. Be organized and be proactive in setting up your hours so that it's not too late or the one thing holding up your application. As usual, the more effort you put in, the more you'll get out of your experience.