How To Shadow A Doctor UK (Advice From A Junior Doctor)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Shadowing a doctor can be one of the best ways to get a look behind the curtain of healthcare delivery and really see what working in medicine is like.

Before going to medical school, I shadowed a handful of different doctors to try and ensure it was the right career path for me.

Each experience gave me a unique perspective on what being a doctor meant and both added to my motivation to study medicine as well as bolstered my CV making it more likely I’d get in.

In this article, I’m going to explain how you can shadow a doctor in the UK, as well as give you some important steers for when you’re actually on placement with a healthcare professional.

What Does Shadowing A Doctor Involve?

Shadowing a doctor is one of the most common ways prospective medical students are able to go out and get quality work experience to support a medical school application.

Shadowing a doctor can mean anything from being a fly on the wall during a clinic to actually getting to assist in real operations.

As a student, you’ll stick with the doctor you’re working with for the day- whether they’re working on a hospital ward, in a GP practice, clinic or operating theatre.

How much you can get stuck in depends on both the doctor and what you’re doing. At one end of the spectrum, you may just observe the doctor as they go about their day-to-day business, but at the other end, you might be sent to talk to patients, examine them, report your findings and generally act as another pair of helping hands.

What Are The Benefits Of Shadowing A Doctor?

It’s easy to watch medical documentaries, talk to medics, read books written by doctors and just imagine what working in medicine would be like, but nothing comes nearly as close to actually being a doctor as shadowing one as they simply go about their day.

When you’re shadowing a doctor you’ll likely see both the upsides of the job (the patient contact, decision-making, clinical skills/procedures…) as well as the less glamorous side of things.

There will be times when you’re having to just wait around, times when things haven’t gone to plan, and times when patients really aren’t happy at all about you trying to help them.

But, they’re all part and parcel of the job and both the positives and negatives are what goes into the job of a doctor.

A doctor taking a patient’s blood pressure

Shadowing a doctor will also let you ask any and every question you have about the profession to someone who’s actually living it.

You can ask why they chose to study medicine, what their favourite thing about being a doctor is and even whether they’d make a different choice if they could go back in time.

This is all not to mention the fact that some solid shadowing experiences will look great on your CV when you come to actually apply to medical schools.

What Kind Of Doctor Should You Shadow?

Two people can shadow two different kinds of doctor and walk away with totally different experiences.

Medicine is a huge field and there is an incredible amount of variety within it.

If you think a career in medicine may be for you, I’d suggest any shadowing experience you can get will be incredibly valuable to you.

I wouldn’t be too fussy about what type of doctor you are or are not shadowing.

However, if you are in a position to be able to choose who you’re going to ask, you could think about the following:

  • If you have certain specialties that you think you may want to go into, there’s no harm in getting some experience in them early. This could be anything from neurosurgery to dermatology to emergency medicine.
  • If you can, I’d highly recommend at least one of your shadowing placements be with a junior doctor based in hospital. This doctor will likely be doing a very similar job to the one you’ll have to do upon graduating from medical school. By shadowing them, you can build a picture of whether you’d actually enjoy the work.
  • Equally, mixing shadowing a junior doctor with a consultant will round out your picture of medicine. Although you will be a ‘junior’ doctor for 5-10 years after graduating, in the grand scheme of things you’ll spend more time as a fully-qualified consultant.

How To Find A Doctor To Shadow

Unfortunately, once you’ve decided that you want to shadow a doctor it’s not always that straightforward to find one who will take you on!

In reality, the easiest way to arrange a placement with a doctor is if you know one personally or through family or friends.

I get that this option won’t be open to everyone, but if you do have connections to a doctor then now is the time to use them!

Even if the doctor you reach out to isn’t able to accommodate you shadowing them, they very well might know of another doctor who could.

Personal connections to anyone in healthcare can all be worth their weight in gold here- whether that be family in nursing, practice managers or ward clerks.

Anyone connected to healthcare will often be able to catch the ear of the right person to be able to get the ball rolling in arranging a shadowing placement for you.

How To Shadow A Doctor Pixel Infographic

Even if you don’t personally know any doctors, you’ve still got plenty of options open to you.

Sometimes, it’s just about playing the numbers game.

Doctors are generally very busy people so I’d try not to get too disheartened if you don’t get a reply or they can’t give you a shadowing placement.

You can find doctors to reach out to at local hospitals, GP practices, or through your school.

Some schools have pre-organised work experience ties with a hospital, meaning you’ll be able to get the contact details for exactly the right person who can arrange a placement for you.

Either way, many hospitals will have a dedicated work experience coordinator. This is who’s email you’ll want to find to be able to submit a request to.

If it all seems a bit overwhelming, just remember that you’re probably not the first person to apply to medical school from your school or college.

If you can, get in touch with people from the year above you who made medicine applications as they very well may still have great connections that you can use to arrange a placement.

How Do You Ask A GP To Shadow Them?

GP practices can be one of the best places to shadow a doctor.

Approximately 50% of medical graduates eventually go on to become GPs so the chances are you very well may end up as one!

With a GP practice, you actually have a couple of options for how to arrange a placement:

  1. You can reach out to the individual GPs themselves
  2. You can reach out to the practice manager

The practice manager is ultimately who will likely coordinate placements such as students shadowing doctors, but they’re of course not going to give you the green light if none of their doctors wants to let you shadow them.

I’d recommend reaching out directly to a GP if you have some sort of connection with them- you either know them personally, through family or through friends.

If they want to get you in for a placement then they’ll be able to sort it through the practice manager.

However, if you don’t know any of the doctors at the practice, I suspect you may have better luck contacting the practice manager directly.

They’ll have an overview of which doctors would most likely be able to accommodate your request so can forward your request to the best person.

Can You Ask Your Own Doctor To Shadow Them?

You may be tempted to ask your own personal doctor whether you can shadow them to assist with your medical school application.

In my opinion, this is absolutely fine. If a patient asked me whether I could help in arranging a placement for them I’d be more than happy to help.

A GP talking to one of their patients

However, I will caveat this by saying you should not make a doctor’s appointment just to ask if you can shadow them!

If you’re able to, send your doctor a quick email explaining who you are and what you’d like.

It’s best to do this in plenty of time so that you can work around your doctor’s diary and any other commitments they might have while still having plenty of time to spare before submitting your UCAS application.

How Old Do You Have To Be To Shadow A Doctor?

There is no set minimum age to be able to shadow a doctor. However, there are a few factors to consider that may restrict you from shadowing health professionals at a young age.

Firstly, some medical schools won’t evaluate a candidate’s work experience unless it’s been undertaken in the two years prior to their application.

This means any work experience you do too far out from your application’s deadline won’t contribute to you being invited to interviews or being given an offer to study medicine.

Equally, hospitals generally set a minimum age of 16 to be able to fully participate in clinical work experience.

This isn’t to say you can’t shadow a family friend who’s a GP when you’re under 16, but it’s very unlikely you’d be able to do the same with a junior doctor in a hospital.

There’s nothing wrong with being keen to start building your portfolio of work experience to support a future application to medical school, but I’d suggest you’ll almost always get a bit more out of a shadowing placement if you wait until you’re at least 16.

How To Prepare For Your Time Shadowing

To get the most out of shadowing a doctor, it’s worth putting a bit of effort into preparing for the experience.

If you know what sort of thing you’re going to be doing on your placement, it’s definitely worth reading up about the topic.

For example, if you know you’re going to be observing a surgeon performing knee replacements, you’ll get a whole lot more out of the experience if you’ve watched a few YouTube videos explaining the operation and how it works before you go and see it actually being performed.

Alternatively, if you’re going to shadow a GP, you could easily watch a couple of episodes of ‘GPs: Behind Closed Doors’ to get a sense of what it’s going to be like and what you’re going to see.

This could then let you contrast your personal shadowing experience with what you saw on TV!

Another really valuable thing to do before your placement is to just take a moment to think about some of the questions you may have about the profession.

  • What’s this doctor’s least favourite thing about working in the NHS?
  • Why did they personally choose to study medicine and not nursing?
  • Are patients generally nice or nasty after you make a mistake?

It’s always difficult to think of things on the spot, so taking a bit of time before your shadowing placement can allow you to brainstorm and ask all the questions that would have otherwise come to you too late.

What To Say After Shadowing A Doctor

After you’ve finished a shadowing placement with a doctor a nice gesture can be to just send them a quick thank you email or letter.

It doesn’t have to be anything complicated, you can keep it short and sweet.

A small note like this can actually be incredibly helpful to doctors as they can include it in their annual portfolios (if they so wish) as evidence of an ongoing commitment to teaching and training.

Final Thoughts

If you can, I’d strongly recommend you do at least one placement shadowing a doctor before you apply to medical school.

Being shoulder to shoulder with real doctors on a ward will just make it so much easier for you to imagine whether this is the job for you.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not always easy to arrange a shadowing placement with a doctor, but hopefully, this article will have given you the first steps on how to do it.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.