Some little girls want to be princesses, some want to be astronauts, some supermodels, engineers, or doctors. What no little girl wants to be is a zombified professional school student on her fifth cup of coffee, half paying attention to another path lecture about lymphomas. In my preclinical years, I found that the key to not losing myself in the lists of factors that all sounded like slight variations of the exact same made-up word, was to spend time in the clinical setting. Clinical exposure in your preclinical years can introduce you to the vocabulary that you will learn to use as a second language in your clinical years. You can learn to interact with patients in a meaningful way that also gets you comfortable in your white coat. You can learn and fine-tune soft skills, get exposure to multiple specialties, and get a nice clinical correlation to what you’re learning in class (where before your eyes, a 100 slide deck on CHF is a 55-year-old patient standing right in front of you, JVD, pitting edema, and all).

Where Do I Start?

Opportunities for clinical exposure can come in many different forms.

  • Many schools have clinics run by med students of all levels that serves uninsured patients, staffed by volunteer faculty.
  • Interest groups or local volunteer organizations will often have health fairs where medical students can perform general/screening exams.
  • If all else fails, there’s always the tried-and-true method: shadowing. Go to a faculty member you admire or someone in a specialty of interest and ask in person if they’d be open to having you shadow. Coordinate and plan out times for you to come and observe.

The best place to start is your school. Opportunities for exposure are often found in the emails you “accidentally” delete from your department of student affairs. Talk to your advisors and faculty that also teach in the preclinical years. Go onto your school’s website, find a faculty member with similar interests and send an email. Look online for local organizations focused on health and wellness.

What Kind of Experience Is Best For Me?

Believe it or not, unlike undergrad, there can often be too many opportunities to get clinical experience. You only have 24 hours in a day and most of those are still spent doing preclinical work so choose what you’d like to see and use that to guide you.

  • If you find that patient interactions are awkward for you, student-run and free clinics are really helpful for fostering good patient care skills.
  • If you want to work on simple clinical skills like blood pressure and glucose checks or to give back to the community, health fairs and volunteer organizations are your go-to.
  • If you don’t know what specialties interest you, take the time to shadow doctors in different departments to get an idea of what you like.

How Do I Get the Most Experience? What Do I Bring?

Your experience will vary based on the location you’re at, the number of patients, the number of other students, and the type of experience, among other things.

  • When you’re at a health fair, ask ahead of time if you should bring your own equipment. Sometimes clinics and events may be underfunded and bringing your own equipment such as blood pressure cuffs and stethoscopes will allow you to see more patients.
  • Clinics and hospitals are professional attire zones. In other places like the OR, ER, or the labor and delivery ward, you’re also more likely to see scrubs but never assume. Regardless, bring your white coat and take it off if you’re told to. Always bring your student/hospital ID.
  • In addition to the way you dress, be professional when you interact with faculty, staff, and patients. If you can’t attend an event you signed up for due to an emergency, inform the appropriate person ahead of time. You’re making an impression on people that you’ll probably be working with again at some point. The medical community is a small one.
  • Come ready to learn. Bring a small notebook and a pen. Write things down. Ask thoughtful questions when appropriate. Be engaged. Don’t be afraid to scrub in if offered or see the cool rare finding in the other room with the resident.

When Can I Find Time To Do This?

From the moment you enter medical school to the moment you retire, you’re going to be busy. That’s kind of a part of the job. One of the most important skills you have to develop early on is the art of time management. As with anything else in your life like eating and sleeping, the time is in your schedule, you just have to find it and learn how to balance.

  • Plan things out far ahead of time: use your school’s schedule to find your free weekends or evenings.
  • Don’t make commitments you can’t keep: if you can’t come to a clinic weekly, don’t say you will. Don’t take a slot in a student-run clinic the weekend before a test if you know you won’t go.
  • Some physicians in some specialties will have overnight shifts or overnight calls, if you have a free Friday night, take advantage and go then. This way you can get an idea of what you’ll see at night as a surgeon or OBGYN, and you can still sleep in the next day.

The preclinical years are, in a way, a rite of passage for those going into medicine. In the midst of the lists of drugs and structures, it can be easy to lose sight of why you’re even here. My advice is to find time to surround yourself with what brought you to medical school in the first place.