Medical Volunteering vs. Medical Shadowing

There are many different kinds of programs that can help prepare you for medical school and make you a more competitive applicant. For those who are driven and eager to become a doctor or PA (or to enter a related field), the goal is to find immersive, meaningful programs that will boost your competencies as a pre-health professional and also improve your understanding of how the world of medicine works.

One key part of your path will be gaining clinical experience. Note: the PA application process has its own nuances with regards to what counts as clinical experience, and we will leave those nuances out of the scope of this article, but please do keep them in mind if you’re a PA applicant.

Two Main Options for Pre-Health and Pre-Med Experiences Abroad

Very often, when pre-health students seek out programs abroad, they think of volunteering in developing countries. Medical mission trips are quite popular because they focus on doing actual volunteer work. On a medical mission trip, pre-health students might shadow doctors, but often the focus is doing real work and helping the doctors rather than having them simply observe the doctors and take in the experience.

Another leading opportunity for gaining clinical experience is shadowing doctors, whether domestically or internationally. If you shadow abroad in developed countries, such as Spain or Italy, you can learn how doctors handle their tasks and what challenges they face, all while observing top-notch professionals and gaining a unique perspective on international healthcare systems.

Choosing a program among all the options can be a daunting task. In this article we compare the benefits of medical missions against the benefits of shadowing in developed countries. There are pros and cons to both. To be upfront, Atlantis runs shadowing programs in developed countries, primarily in Europe, but in this article we try to provide an impartial view of these two paths, because both are valuable.

The Benefits of Each Path

There are many ways to incorporate international experiences as part of your pre-health path, but at the end of the day you can boil it down to 2 main options: shadowing and volunteering. Each contributes to your personal and professional development, and each is valuable for growing in the AAMC Core Competencies.

Shadowing involves being immersed in the hospital environment and closely observing doctors in either developed or developing countries. Ethical shadowing guidelines from the AAMC require that students only observe the physicians – they cannot work with the patients themselves, since they do not hold a medical degree. Through shadowing programs, students might learn about a wide range of specialties, watch interesting procedures, and take notes on doctor-patient interaction. Shadowing allows students to fully devote themselves to the tasks of observing, asking questions, and honing their competencies.

The other option for pre-health students to gain experience abroad is volunteering with a medical mission, where they actually complete tasks to assist the doctors in their work. This is usually done in a developing country, and the work is usually administrative – something not directly related to the medicine itself. (If the program did involve working with patients, that would be problematic from an ethical standpoint.) Some of the benefits of medical mission trips are that it gives American students an experience of healthcare in less privileged areas of the world, they directly help the doctors, and they help students grow in the areas of teamwork and service orientation (two of the Core Competencies). 

Limits to the Work You are Allowed to Do

The critical limitation with volunteering is that the AAMC Guidelines specifically only allow volunteers to do non-medical tasks. This means that whatever the program has you doing, you cannot assist with any medical procedures and can only help with administrative work. While this is definitely helpful for the mission and valuable for the doctors, it robs you, the student, of time that could be spent observing medical procedures and clinical work. To maximize the value of your time abroad, we recommend choosing a program that has you interacting with doctors as much as possible – after all, these are the professionals whose shoes you might fill someday.

Different Perspectives from Shadowing in Developing vs. Developed Countries

The benefit of completing shadowing hours in a developed setting is that you get to observe the role of a doctor in a setting similar to the one that you will have in the U.S. Europe has essentially the same clinical environment, as well as roughly the same life expectancies, mortality rates, chronic diseases, etc. In that way, shadowing in Europe is especially useful for developing a sense of what your job actually will be. 

At the same time, Europe has a different approach to delivering healthcare. European medicine and American medicine share many similar goals and structure as to how care is given and maintained. However, there are also some key differences that can provide differing viewpoints on how to tackle obstacles and challenges, depending on the environment. We will explore some of these differences between European and American healthcare in a later article, because it’s such a crucial and nuanced topic.

The benefits of shadowing in Europe are actually compounded if you also shadow in the U.S., because it gives you more points of comparison. The role of a doctor or physician assistant in the U.S. looks slightly different in Europe and also varies by country. Future PAs will especially benefit from shadowing abroad, because outside the U.S., a PA’s typical responsibilities are split between doctors and nurses, and you get to observe a more fluid, less hierarchical system of care.

The perspective you gain from volunteering with a medical mission is also extremely valuable. In the case of volunteering, you are working with doctors in developing countries and healthcare professionals who deal with a lot of adversity. Observing and assisting them in their mission can solidify your own love and vocation to the medical field. It also gives you a greater appreciation for the resources that we take for granted in the U.S. and a more informed perspective on issues of healthcare policy.

Each Path Explores What the World of Medicine is Really Like

Anytime you’re immersing yourself in foreign healthcare, it provides an opportunity to reflect on the role of governments and private institutions in helping society to live longer and healthier lives. Volunteering can feel like a more hands-on experience because you’re contributing to the doctors’ work and assisting with tasks. Nevertheless, strictly observing allows you to concentrate on what’s most important: learning about procedures and clinical operations, and engaging fully with the environment around you.

Regardless of which path you choose, it’s important to be present in the moment and to devote your full attention to becoming familiar with the demands, the pace, and the expectations of doctors – whether that’s in a developed or developing environment.

The goal at the end of the day is to get the best sense of what the world of medicine is really like, and to gain valuable insight on how to navigate the challenges of medical life. It’s a daunting task. There are many different areas of expertise, different operations, locations, and situations you might find yourself in.

When choosing between shadowing and volunteering, whether internationally or domestically, it’s good to remember that both options will help you and others. You will have a better sense of what medicine is, more of a motivation to study, and the space during the academic year to focus on grades (since abroad experiences typically happen in the summer or winter breaks). You will have unique stories for your applications and interviews. Ultimately, you will have a unique perspective that will serve you well during your time in medical school, PA school, or other graduate programs – and beyond.

About Atlantis

Atlantis is the leader in clinical shadowing abroad, partnering with over 200 hospitals in Europe, including top hospitals in Spain, Italy, and Portugal. Students shadow 20+ hours per week, develop the AAMC Core Competencies, set themselves apart on their medical/PA school applications, and grow in their passion for medicine.

If you found this article helpful and would like to explore shadowing opportunities with Atlantis, contact us today to learn more about how to get involved.