The Pros and Cons of Having a Medical Student Shadow You

December 14, 2020
Heidi Moawad, MD

You have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as you decide whether teaching students in the clinical setting is right for you.

Teaching medical students in the clinical setting is a professional activity that many physicians enjoy. You are likely to be contacted by students who reach out to shadow you in your work—whether you take care of patients directly or work as a diagnostic clinician, such as in radiology or pathology.

You might consider having medical students shadow you in your office or in the hospital, even if you don’t primarily work in a teaching setting. There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to having a medical student shadow you.

And, while most doctors like the experience of teaching medical students during clinical work, this type of interaction isn’t right for every physician. You can have an impact on the next generation of physicians, but sometimes the cost to your current practice might not make the investment worth it for you.

Advantages

You are likely to recall the experience of shadowing physicians during your own medical school years. As you have gained expertise and experience, you might decide that you want to teach students yourself. There are a number of benefits to working with medical students, and some of these benefits might enhance your satisfaction with your own work.

Teaching: The most beneficial aspect of having a medical student shadow you is the opportunity to teach. You can model good clinical care in terms of things like communication and diagnostic and treatment planning. And, throughout this process, you might sense mistakes that your students could make in the future and preemptively correct them, which will benefit your students for the long term.

Pre interview: When medical students shadow you, they will often interview your patients before you do. When patients are faced with the same questions repeatedly (from a medical student and then again from you), it can jog their memory to recall certain aspects of their own medical history, potentially bringing things like risk factors or subtle symptoms to the forefront—and improving patient care.

Red flags: Sometimes, students may focus on unusual aspects of the history or diagnostic tests. Students who are new to patient care may have questions about unfamiliar things that could otherwise go unnoticed.

Patient attention: Patients may appreciate the extra attention they receive from medical students, who are often meticulous and sympathetic. Many patients may also feel a sense of pride in the opportunity to help a medical student move forward with their education.

Future referrals: When you take the time to teach students who shadow you, they will remember you. As they move on and become practicing physicians, they may refer patients to you. Even if they go into your specialty, your former students may send challenging patients to you for your second opinion.

Disadvantages

There are also a few disadvantages of having a medical student shadow you in your clinical practice, and these could be deal breakers for you if they seem like they could ruin your day or interfere with patient care.

Slow down: Teaching can take time, and it can delay your clinic. You might find that you are getting behind as you explain things, and this can prolong your day in the hospital or the office, leading to frustration and fatigue.

Misunderstanding: Sometimes students can misunderstand or misinterpret things that are going on in your office, especially when things happen fast. A student who has a habit of inaccurately “filling in the blanks” when they don’t understand something may end up saying things about you that are incorrect, potentially causing others—including other physicians—to misunderstand and negatively view your practice.

Miscommunication with patients: Patients often don’t differentiate between physicians and students. If your patient asks the medical student a question, there is a small chance that the student who is shadowing you could give an incorrect answer to your patient. As we all know, “you don’t know what you don’t know” and partial knowledge can be more dangerous than no knowledge at all. Setting boundaries and clarifying responsibilities can help alleviate these issues.

Overall, having a medical student shadow you can be a great experience. But for some doctors, this isn’t the right fit. You have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses as you decide whether teaching students in the clinical setting is right for you.

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