Shadowing A Psychiatrist (A How-To Guide For Med Students)

Shadowing a psychiatrist is potentially the most difficult of specialty-based opportunities to get. Patient confidentiality and practice liability are two massive obstacles that deter pre-med students, or anyone else looking to gain experience, from entering into this world.

But it is possible!

As a med student myself, I know several colleagues who’ve successfully shadowed psychiatrists. I’ve even managed it myself!

So in this article, I want to help. We’ll cover:

  • How best you can increase those chances
  • What difficulties are involved shadowing a psychiatrist
  • Tips on how to make the most of the experience

Ready to get started? Let’s go!

What’s the best way to shadow a psychiatrist?

The best way to shadow a psychiatrist is to try hard to find a contact. Look for opportunities in mental health institutions first (before private practice). Oftentimes, it’s much easier to get consent there.

But let’s go further in this how-to guide.

What are the difficulties involved in shadowing a psychiatrist?

The reason why it’s hard to get opportunities shadowing psychiatrists (compared to other specialists), is due to the nature of their work.

Psychiatrists diagnose and treat mental illnesses and abnormal behaviour. They also do this across a wide range of settings; from hospitals and private clinics to federal prisons and high security mental insitutions.

A psychiatrist’s work then, depending on what branch they find themselves, has certain risks involved. But aside from threats of violence and dealing with potentially volatile people, there are other issues too. Patient confidentiality and trust are two of the biggest ones.

So here’s why it’s hard:

  • Many patients present to psychiatrists in vulnerable states.
  • A lot of times, these states aren’t suitable for observation by random strangers.
  • The whole dynamic can interfere with diagnosis, treatment and a patient’s safety concerns.

This is why pre-med students or non-medical students can have such a difficult time shadowing in this area.

Legality and insurance, for many practicing psychiatrists, wouldn’t cover shadowing in the case of potential incidents.

So although a psychiatrist might be open to teaching, it’s often just not worth the risk.

Tips on finding a psychiatrist to shadow

  • Volunteering to work at a teaching hospital: getting a position doing non-shadowing related work in a teaching hospital could put you in contact with psychiatry residents or doctors willing to create an opportunity for you. Teaching hospitals are best for this as they are already well-used to setting up shadowing programs and scoring an opportunity will probably involve less red-tape. As it’s a teaching hospital, specialists will probably me more open to mentoring you too.
  • Target state mental hospitals: larger mental institutions will generally be more organised and familiar with the concept of a person shadowing. They’ll probably have more availability of psychiatrists or other mental health professionals too. Run a Google search to find places close to you that aren’t high security facilities who may have educational departments.
  • Reach out to medical schools: this worked for me (although indirectly). Look for medical schools in your area and search their website for the psychiatry department homepage and send out a few emails. State what it is you’re looking for and why you have an interest in the field. You never know what might come back.
  • Capitalise on contacts: put the word out that you’d like to shadow someone in a mental health care facility. Ask around your friends and family for possible connections. Maybe send a message out on social media. It might seem like a bit of a shot in the dark but many people report finding psychiatrists to shadow this way.

Obviously your outreach should be both respectful and thoughtful.

Try and come up with genuine reasons you might be interested in psychiatry as a possible career. Then keep reaching out and following up.

How do you ask for shadowing from a psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are doctors just the same as others. Outreach aimed at them should be the same as it would for a surgeon, general practicioner or whoever else. Before you start with an introduction and your name, make sure you get there name and title right first.

From there maybe explain your situation (where and what you study etc) and how far you are into your studies. Then discuss why you’d be interested in observing psychiatry-based medicine and what it is about the field that appeals to you. You might have to do some research into the role and the diseases they treat to do a good job here.

Finally maybe end the request by discussing the psychiatrists own credentials and why you feel they’d be an excellent person to learn from. Be tactful here and use your common sense not to insult them or be too over enthusiastic in your praise. At the end of the day they just want a thoughtful human response – not a huge essay to read either!

What To Expect Shadowing a Psychiatrist

If you are lucky to get something set-up and scheduled in terms of observing psychiatry, then it’s useful to know a few things about what you can expect.

Firstly, due to a psychiatrist’s role, you’ll probably have to fill in a few declaration and consent forms so that everything can be covered and accounted for legally. Don’t be surprised if the psychiatrist you plan on shadowing (or their institution) requests to run a background check on you. This is entirely normal for all people coming into healthcare-related settings in a non-patient capacity.

When it comes to observation, don’t expect every patient to consent to your presence during their appointment or meeting. For those that don’t mind, your psychiatrist might ask a few things from you; like sitting in a specific place or not attempting to interact with a patient in any way. This can all be case-dependent.

Finally just remember to ask respectfully and professionally to both patients and physicians. Afterall, there’s no real benefit to you shadowing to them – they just might be keen to try and help you!

This video gives some extra insight into what you could expect to see during a “typical” day shadowing a psychiatrist…

Questions To Ask Shadowing a Psychiatrist

A good shadowing experience comes from going out your way to understand what it is you’re observing. Doing some research, learning about the role of a psychiatrist and the pathologies they treat, can go a long way in ingratiating you to both patients and doctors. It’ll also make the whole thing more fun too.

Some good (albeit general) questions to ask might include:

  • What influenced you to go into psychiatry as a specialty?
  • What are the most rewarding aspects of working in mental health?
  • What are the most common challenges you face as a physician working in this area?
  • How has psychiatry changed as a field during your time working in the field?
  • Where do you see psychiatry going in the future?
  • What would you recommend or suggest to people interested in becoming psychiatrists?

Of course you’ll want to come up with some good questions relevant to the physician and the setting you’re shadowing in also. Just make sure they wouldn’t breach patient-doctor confidentality or cause any discomfort or ease anyone in doing so.

My Personal Experiences Shadowing in Psychiatry

Back before I started my journey into med school – when I was just an innocent bystander with a dream in my head – I managed to get some experience shadowing in psychiatry.

It happened entirely by accident. I met a University of Liverpool med student on a surf trip one time, who pulled some strings and got me a chance to attend their University summer school’s taster session in the specialty.

Showing up in Liverpool, I had no idea what to expect. I’d never met a psychiatrist before (or been in a room with so many med students). So it was a surprise to me how passionate they all were!

The session ran over two days. The first day was a series of presentations made by UK-based psychiatrists talking about the speciality and their journeys into it. Pretty inspiring stuff – so much so that psychiatry was the first medical specialty I ever really considered (although that’s changed a bit now).

Shadowing happened on the final day. It was arranged for us to enter Ashworth High Security Hospital, a place notorious for having “Britain’s most violent patients“. There we followed around the main psychiatrist consultant, got to sit and talk to several patients and also see how the health teams ran the wards. It was an eye-opening experience.

But it was also entirely lucky. The coordinator, because I’d expressed a vague interest into maybe one day studying medicine and becoming a psychiatrist, somehow let me join med students.

And the only reason I had his contact was through a random meeting with a med student France!

Probably not your typical shadowing set-up.

Final Thoughts

Shadowing in psychiatry, although difficult, can be a fascinating insight into the world of mental health and common problems patients can face. You might have to persevere when it comes to finding physicians to shadow – especially given the problems discussed – but landing an opportunity is not unheard of.

Take my story as a case in point.

Image Credit: @anikolleshi at Unsplash