One can't really quantify the rewards of touching a patient's life and helping them to heal.
However, our contact on the admissions committee of a local UC tells us that her medical school is now looking for applicants who have at least 100-150 patient contact hours!
Across the country, pre-meds are being encouraged by their advisors to accumulate at least 100 hours of patient contact to meet these kinds of revised requirements; different medical schools, of course, will have different interests, and we encourage you to contact individual admissions offices to find out how strongly their medical schools emphasize clinical experience in the applications they receive.
Why is patient contact so important?
- Directly interacting with patients and their families helps develop:
- Self-management, problem-solving and coping skills
- Ethical behavior and professionalism
- Interpersonal skills and teamwork
- Clinical knowledge and technical skill
- Empathy and genuinely altruistic motivation
Admissions committees want evidence that you are ready to assume responsibility for helping or taking care of others-and frankly, that you are the type of person who derives satisfaction from providing service. Just as important, they would prefer that the students they admit have already had a taste of the physical and emotional demands of this profession. They are figuring that a few months in a clinical environment will weed out pre-meds who have a latent squeamishness about dealing with patients and their bodies, as well as those who tend to glamorize the profession. Medical schools are looking for applicants whose realistic expectations about medicine have not canceled out their passion.
What constitutes good patient contact?
Try to seek out roles in clinical environments that allow you to provide care to patients and to observe physicians firsthand. Examples include:
- Volunteer experience in hospital or clinic - all hospitals have a volunteer services office.
- Volunteering in nursing home as an aide; hospice volunteer
- EMT - classes leading to certification are often offered at community colleges.
- Phlebotomist/ Blood Gas Technician - requires training and certification.
- Certified Nurses Aid (CNA)/Home Health Aid (HHA) - requires training and certification, but has the benefit of a CNA salary.
Other roles requiring intensive patient contact include: medic, first responder, lifeguard, athletic trainer, volunteering with a mobile clinic (e.g. Flying Samaritans), dorm health worker/peer health counselor, etc. You may also be able to cite experience with dentistry, veterinary medicine, optometry, podiatry, physical therapy, etc. (though you must articulate how this experience is applicable to your goal of becoming a physician. For example a dental hygienist salary is high enough in some regions to beg the question of why you want to change careers.).
What would not be considered patient contact?
- The non-medical duties usually assigned to candy-stripers or orderly (e.g. delivering films to radiology)
- Working in the pharmacy
- Doing laboratory research, even on a clinical trial (i.e. no direct patient interaction)
- Administrative work in a doctor's office (e.g. answering phones, typing, filing)
- Shadowing physicians, especially those you are related to (scrubbing in to observe your surgeon father in the OR may yield some terrific stories, but technically speaking, they're not your stories).
Should I try to maximize the number of patient contact experiences?
Diversity is good, but depth is probably better.
As you may guess, long-term commitment is favored. Taking blood pressure at an annual health fair hosted by your pre-med club is fine, but being entrusted to take vital signs at a community clinic is much better.
At Inquarta, we have seen that successful candidates to medical school share certain characteristics in common. They are self-motivated individuals whose focus and passion extend to both their academic and extracurricular pursuits. In looking over these students' records, you would discover a coherent narrative of the way they have pursued certain intellectual interests and concerns in both their academic and extracurricular lives. By simply following the threads of these interests, the admissions officers can see an impressive commitment to a goal. They will be able to tell why the applicant chose one research or community service project over another.
The emotional benefits to seeking out meaningful patient care opportunities as a pre-med can be profound and lasting. Patient contact will also enrich your medical school application in countless ways; not only will it add heft to your AMCAS list of Post-Secondary Experience Descriptions, but the life experience you gain as an ER volunteer or nurse's aide will provide an endless source of anecdotes to enliven your personal statement, secondary essays, and interviews. Naturally, these volunteer experiences also constitute a marvelous opportunity for networking and finding mentor figures who can be prevailed upon to write supplementary letters of recommendations. Lastly, these clinical "apprenticeships" can put you into an environment where you are interacting with people of different ages, and cultural and class backgrounds. "The right patient contact experiences will challenge you to develop problem-solving and interpersonal skills that you otherwise wouldn't have the chance to do," says Don Osborne, the president of Inquarta. "If you choose your patient contact experience well, you will emerge more mature, confident and informed -and that's what medical schools love to see."