Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

Making the Most of Hospital Volunteering & Shadowing

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By: Glenn N. Cummings, Ph.D., Director of Health Professions Advising

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Our sophomore preceptorship program at LGH is up and running for another year . . .  Some of you have secured volunteer hours at one of our local healthcare facilities . . .  Some of you are volunteering with F&M EMS or another rescue squad . . .  All of you, we hope, have heard by now that gaining “clinical” experience, meaning experience interacting with patients and staff in a healthcare setting, is crucial to your life as a pre-health student.  However, when it comes to volunteering and shadowing in a hospital, specifically, we occasionally hear some grumbling.  “Why do medical schools insist that we volunteer at a hospital?”  “Why does the healthcare provider I’m shadowing ignore me?”  “Why isn’t anyone giving me more responsibility?”  Some of you are frustrated by your clinical activities, to be sure.

First of all, it’s important to remember that before one goes to health professional school and gets the proper training, you’re pretty much left with volunteering and shadowing as your options for gaining patient contact.   You may have your expectations too high.  But that doesn’t mean that the experience has to be tedious.  If your frustration comes from a lack of contact with physicians, and the patients on the ward are asleep, then you’re probably volunteering in the evening.  When scheduling your time in a hospital, think beyond what is best for your schedule.  Inconvenience yourself.  Volunteer in the mornings (drag yourself out of bed!), or on the weekends, not in the late evening when many of the staff have gone home and patients are asleep—not to mention the friends and families of patients aren’t visiting (you can learn a lot from witnessing the concerns of patients’ loved ones).  Also, be cognizant of the fact that you’re probably experiencing more than you realize.  This will become apparent if you write down your experiences.  Spend a little time recording conversations you’ve had with patients and staff, and include some of what you’ve overheard from the sidelines.  The more detailed you are with note-taking, the better equipped you’ll be when asked to talk about your familiarity with clinical settings; it may even help you understand why you’re in the hospital in the first place.  Lastly, remember that this isn’t about doing something you find exciting—at least not entirely.  To be frank, it’s not about you, it’s about what the hospital or clinic needs to help its patients.  Tasks such as talking to patients (hopefully comforting them), helping families pass the time, transporting patients, even addressing their concerns on phone calls, are essential to your development as a caregiver and also essential to the overall care offered to the community.  As for shadowing, if the doc is ignoring you, speak up and ask some questions.  Don’t be shy or intimidated by what you worry is a “dumb” question.  There are no “dumb” questions when you’re there to learn as a college student.  Show interest and curiosity, and you may be surprised.

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