Clinical Experience: Necessary or Not for Pre-Meds?

Pre-medical biology major gaining her clinical hours in a respiratory clinic.

Putting arguments over whether or not it’s really necessary aside, the fact is having clinical experience can play an important and potentially determining role in a medical school applicant’s file. Medical schools use your record in this area to gauge your understanding of the nature of a career as a physician.

Why Clinical Experience Matters

Basically, some schools are very hesitant towards accepting someone who has not had any meaningful exposure to the field. Reason being, there is the concern that, once accepted and into the training, such an individual will find s/he does not really like the career after all. In this type of scenario, everyone loses – the student for whom the career search must begin again, the other applicants who might otherwise have gotten in, and the school which has made a substantial investment in the student to this point.

Clinical vs. Research

Clinical experience is not to be confused with research experience. As pointed out, schools are interested in what you know about the daily life of a physician. Most physicians do not engage in research on a regular basis, or even at all. Therefore, your goal should be to find a place where you can be around patients who are either hospitalized or in an ambulatory care setting.

This is not to say volunteering or working in a research laboratory isn’t a valuable accomplishment for its own sake, since it helps you understand more about the role and nature of basic science in medicine. If the medical schools you are contemplating consider as one of their strengths the preparation of future physician-researchers, then you may do well to also make time for this sort of participation during your premed years.

Still, in the minds of admissions committee members, there is no substitute for exposure to sick and healthy people, patient care settings, and participation in a health care team’s work. A hospital, neighborhood clinic, or hospice are but a few examples of places where you might obtain meaningful exposure.

Volunteer vs. Paid

Now, to many a “poor” college student it would be ideal actually getting paid while racking up clinical hours. And some premeds do have the time and opportunity to work as a nursing assistant, patient care technician, physical therapy aide, or emergency medical technician. However, if you, like most are not one of the relatively few students that secure regular employment as a means of participating in a medical setting, you will want to start your search for a volunteer position.

Finding Places to Volunteer

You can begin by contacting hospitals in your area to ask about the kinds of volunteer positions available, the extent of the time commitment they require, etc. You can expect to fill out an application, be interviewed by the coordinator or director of volunteer services, be asked for references, and required to attend an orientation prior to beginning your stint as a hospital volunteer. You will probably also be asked to make a commitment of serving a minimum number of hours weekly for at least a specified number of months.

Other places where you will find quality clinical opportunities include nursing homes, neighborhood clinics, and hospices. At all of these, you will learn about how sick and terminally ill people behave, what their needs are, and how to communicate sensitively and compassionately with them. You will also begin to understand the dynamics and political realities of medical staff and environment. Through careful observation of and regular participation in the activities of the facility you’re in you will learn who really does what, how clinical professionals feel about their jobs, how managed care impacts health care decisions, and so forth.

Choosing the Volunteer Site That’s Right for You

In selecting the site where you will build up your hours, choose deliberately. Pick a facility that interests you, is easy to get to and from, and offers good support for its volunteers. Adequate training and supervision, clear communication about expectations, and an accessible coordinator or director if problems arise are important elements in evaluating the level and professional nature of the support a facility provides.

The match between you and the site is a significant factor in the quality of the experience you will have… and of the extent of the effort you will extend if you like the surroundings. Don’t, for example, serve in a nursing home if you really cannot handle strong odors and preponderance of extremely frail patients. You really will not do your best in this setting, and an admissions committee will not give you extra points for serving in a place which was personally difficult for you.

Taking Pride in Your Performance

How you perform in your clinical experience is as important as what you gain from it. That is, you may find that one of your best letters of recommendation comes from the volunteer coordinator or job supervisor for whom you have worked. Conversely, there are premeds who have not been accepted into medical school on the basis of the strong reservations expressed about them by the site coordinator or supervisor. The advice here is to treat the clinical exposure – whether paid or volunteer – as serious business.

4 Keys to Earning a Good Evaluation

The following tips will help you earn high marks in your clinical experience:

1. Honor your commitment

Be punctual and reliable; stay on for at least the period of time to which you have agreed. Follow through with your initial commitment.

2. Maintain a good attitude

Be curious and willing to do more than is merely required. Never try to dominate or act aggressively. Always be kind and courteous to all staff and patients you come across. Remember to say “please,” “thank you,” “Can I help?” and “Would it be all right if I….” a lot.

3. Be an active team player

Do not try to do things for which you have no training or independently go outside of your scope of duties. Constantly be learning from others and try to pattern your behavior after that of people you consider worthy role models.

4. Learn about people

Observe human behavior and try to understand differing values that people hold. Make sure to be sensitive to the role of culture in health care and its delivery.

In summary, clinical experience can be a pivotal part of a premedical student’s application. Choose your experience site with care and then put forth your very best effort. At best, not only will your chances of getting accepted into med school improve, but your community will benefit from your contribution to the health of its members, and you will gain a rewarding real-life insight into your future profession as well.