Surgery is the perfect career pathway for those who have good hand-eye coordination, good physical stamina, and can adapt quickly to changing environments.
But what’s the best way to figure out if you can make it in surgery? Shadowing a surgeon of course!
What’s the best way to shadow a surgeon?
The best way to arrange surgery shadowing is to use your contacts. Talk to anybody you know in the medical field; family, extended friends, etc. to see if they can put you in touch with a surgeon. After exhausting that, either call or email the HR of multiple hospitals. You could also consider virtually shadowing a surgeon.
As a med student myself, and someone who understands how tricky it can be to land shadowing opportunities, I know this is no small feat.
But hopefully, this article can help.
- What you can expect shadowing a surgeon
- How you can find surgeons to shadow
- How to make the best of your time shadowing a surgeon
Ready to get started? Let’s dive in.
What can I expect from shadowing a surgeon?
What you can expect will depend on the time and resources of the surgeon you hope to shadow.
For most surgeons, their day consists of:
Daily ward round/briefing
Every morning, surgeons will be briefed on all the patients.
They will particularly be interested in those who are new or who are deteriorating.
Expect to be part of this, observing them talk to and examine patients.
Being informed on how to do common physical exams (i.e. inspecting the abdomen and lungs) can be a good idea. Some surgeons like to test students spontaneously!
Big surprise here! Surgeons will usually (but not always) know on the day what surgeries are scheduled.
Try asking regularly what procedures are planned; if you look keen, there is a higher likelihood that you will be allowed to observe.
Sometimes, one of the residents or surgeons will be “on-call”.
Related: How Does “On-Call” Work For Doctors (Explained & Tips!)
If you keep in contact with doctors, they may allow you to shadow them during these types of shifts.
This experience can be very informative as you can see a diverse range of cases and how they are dealt with!
This video gives some extra insight into how daily life for a college pre-med student could look shadowing a plastic surgeon…
How old do you have to be to shadow a surgeon?
Generally speaking, most hospitals require students to be at least 16 years of age before they can shadow a surgeon at their facility.
Students under 16 aren’t typically allowed to observe in the operating room or emergency room.
That being said, if you do find yourself shadowing (and you’re under 16), there’s no harm in asking!
As rules may vary between hospitals it is definitely worth emailing to clarify. You may get lucky.
What about shadowing a surgeon in high school?
Shadowing a surgeon in high school, because of the laws explained above, can be difficult.
That said, it is possible with both planning and persistence.
Start well in advance. Head to the Careers Department of your school or your high school advisors. Ask them to try and see if they can connect you.
Failing that, try outreach via the methods explained later in this article.
Why is it so difficult to shadow a surgeon?
One of the biggest barriers to shadowing is confidentiality laws.
This is the reason why age restrictions exist and are enforced.
There is restricted access to patient healthcare information, which comes under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
All students must understand confidentiality laws and act responsibly.
How can I find surgeon shadowing opportunities near me?
Volunteering at teaching hospitals
This could put you in good stead and help you gain exposure and potentially meet physicians who you could later shadow.
The fact it is a teaching hospital opens the possibility of more people willing to help you learn.
We have a ton of hospital volunteer opportunities, for both high school students and adults, recommended in our Hospital Volunteer Opportunities Near You articles.
These are broken down into all major US cities!
Contact medical schools
Search medical schools within a certain radius and email their surgery department, asking if any opportunities would be available.
Use your contacts
Spread the word amongst your friends and family – they (or someone they know) may be able to help.
Find work as a medical scribe
In some states, you can get work as a medical scribe with no certification. Doing so can put you in direct contact with surgeons (often working side-by-side), helping them with consultations, etc.
From there, ask if you can observe procedures in your off-time.
Related: Does Scribing Count As Shadowing? (4 Major Things To Ask!)
Enroll in surgery summer programs/internships
Several medical schools offer surgery-specific internships or summer programs for undergrad students with an interest in healthcare careers.
Oftentimes you don’t have to be enrolled in that specific school to take part in these programs either.
But they can be competitive. And you’ll need a high GPA to be eligible in most cases.
What about virtually shadowing a surgeon?
Due to the pandemic, virtual shadowing is something that’s really taking off.
You can find several programs around the web that will let you spend some time with a surgeon.
Although these aren’t as in-depth or valuable as in-person shadowing, they can still provide valuable insight.
They won’t usually count for medical school shadowing hours, however.
What type of surgeon shadowing programs are available?
As mentioned before, certain medical schools or hospital surgery departments, offer shadowing internships (or specialized short-term programs).
One such example; Baylor College of Medicine’s DeBakey Summer Surgery program.
This is an 8-week long program where you’ll be assigned mentors from the surgery faculty and work closely with them at the Ben Taub Hospital in Houston, Texas.
We detail programs like this in our city-by-city Physician Shadowing Guides.
It’s well worth checking them out to see if there are programs like this in your area.
Is it possible to shadow a surgeon without exclusive connections?
Yes. Even if it requires perseverance.
The best way to go about it is to first target a certain branch of surgery that you’re interested in or want experience in.
Doing this does two things. It helps highlight that you have done some research. And it saves the HR staff from running through a lengthy list of names.
We recommend sending a resume to specific departments, listing your accomplishments to date and all the experience/jobs you’ve had in the past.
If you can, list skills you feel are relevant to surgery i.e. manual dexterity and good teamwork.
It’s a lot easier to gain the confidence of people (including surgeons) when you show you’ve done some research and thought about what you may be able to offer!
How should I ask a surgeon for shadowing experience?
If you’re still stuck finding someone, don’t be afraid to cold-call local primary care practices to ask if you can shadow. The idea may seem awkward, but bear in mind that shadowing is very common and doctors will be used to having been asked!
As for how to actually talk to them; that can be quite nerve-racking.
To start, begin by addressing them properly and giving your basic personal information like your name/age/occupation, etc and your level of study.
Then spend a few moments explaining how far into your studies you are and why you’d like a placement in surgery.
End things on a positive note and don’t forget to thank them for their time!
There are neat email and phone call templates here you can use.
Should I expect to hear back?
One thing worth mentioning here; don’t always expect to get a yes (or even a call back).
Surgeons are extremely busy people (as are their secretaries/staff etc). They don’t always have the time to respond to every request.
It’s important you don’t take any rejection personally and that you persevere with different lines of inquiry (other hospitals etc).
What do you wear when shadowing a surgeon?
Clothing when shadowing is very important. Not only do you want to leave a good impression, but comfort is paramount. Especially when you’re on your feet for hours on end!
Related: Best Shoes For Clinical Rotations (Male And Female!)
That said, here are a few common rules:
- In surgery: usually, scrubs are the most appropriate
- Dress smart and appropriately
- No bracelets or watches
- Comfortable plain shoes
In the surgical scrub itself, the hands and forearm are decontaminated.
A sterile surgical gown and pair of gloves are worn, creating an aseptic environment. The process of scrubbing in greatly lowers the risk of infection and improves patient outcomes!
Here’s how it looks…
Follow that link above to find out more.
It can be a good idea to familiarize yourself with this skill before any surgical shadowing experience!
How should I prepare to observe a surgery?
Here’s my best advice on how to prepare well:
Try to learn the history of the patient
As soon as you have secured the chance to observe, ask the staff nurse or a resident for the history of the patient.
Alternately, find the patient’s notes on the online system. Take time looking through any imaging/blood tests. Find out the reason for admission and any other health developments.
YouTube Surgery Skills/Procedure Videos
If you have some time before observing an operation, try watching a short YouTube video to familiarise yourself with the steps of certain procedures. Try to understand the aim and risks of the surgery.
Related: How Do Med Students Practice Surgery? (Try-At-Home Examples!)
Of course, you could also pick up a suture kit to practice too.
Read up on the topic
In med school we’re tasked with reading some fairly heavy books on the topic; Schwartz Principles of Surgery 11th Edition and Sabiston Textbook of Surgery.
I don’t recommend those for a quick overview, but something that can be fast and fun to read is Orthopedics Made Ridiculously Simple.
We love this series on this site! Especially as the images and explanations are fun and you don’t get bored reading.
Listen to podcasts
Surgery 101 Podcast
This is a series of podcasts serving as a brief introduction/review of key surgical topics for medical students. Each episode is divided into chapters and concludes with key points to summarise the topic.
What questions should I ask shadowing a surgeon?
To make the most of your shadowing experience, you should ask questions and highlight your interests.
When you are prepared in advance, not only will you understand the procedure better, you’ll also be able to interact better with the rest of the team.
Some (but not all) questions you could ask include:
- Why did you choose this specialty?
- Tell me a particularly noteworthy memory you have whilst being on the job
- How often do you come across surprising cases? How do you react in such scenarios?
- Are there any things you wish you knew before becoming a surgeon?
- What do you think are the most important skills required to be cut out for a career in surgery?
- How would you compare the work life balance between surgery and other departments?
- How has working in surgery changed you as an individual?
- What advice would you give to somebody wanting to enter the field of surgery?
Make sure you ask your questions at an appropriate time. This requires waiting until the doctor has finished speaking with the patient and is not busy.
How to shadow a surgeon: Reddit’s tips
Finally, Reddit has lots of super useful advice when it comes to finding and making the most of surgical shadowing experiences.
I’ve curated some of the best comments I could find here!
What to do if you’re unsure whether you should talk to the surgeon (during surgery)
It depends on the surgery and the vibe. If it’s a routine surgery, you could probably get away with more talking, but ultimately it depends on the surgeon and how concentrated they are. You can always swing around to the anesthesiologist and see what’s up over there, they’re always super friendly.– tyrannosaurus_racks
Tips on what to wear to a surgical shadowing placement
They’ll likely make you change into scrubs if you’re going in the OR so just wear something that’ll make a good impression in the morning but don’t worry too much about it. Wear comfortable shoes!– whistleberries
Understand your purpose
The purpose of being there isn’t to show off how much you know, it’s to watch and learn. Just be curious and ask questions about whatever’s interesting. They’ll also probably explain what they’re doing as they go– holythesea
What to do if the surgeon your shadowing isn’t giving you much time
HANG OUT WITH THE NURSES AND ANESTHESIOLOGY! They’re so sweet and helpful and will tell you where to stand/what to look for. The surgeon might answer questions or talk you through the procedure, but if not, you can ask the nurses and techs general questions and ask the doctor more specific stuff after the surgery.– cronchypeanutbutter
What to do first (before you begin shadowing a surgeon)
Don’t be afraid to ask up front what their expectations for you are in the OR. Some surgeons want you close, some want you standing back. I shadowed a hand surgeon who repeatedly had to tell me to get closer!–Katchline
What to do to make the best of surgery shadowing
Do stuff that you feel comfortable doing. I’ve helped the scrub techs tie their sterile gowns, broken out sutures, and had the surgeons chair ready if they want to sit down. It’s little things that add up, if you see something that needs to be done and you are allowed to and feel comfortable then do it. Slowly they’ll let you start doing little things here and there.– Soil_Little
What to do if you feel nauseous inside the theatre
Eat before you go in there, like make sure you had a good breakfast that morning and that you are hydrated.– Taem145
If you found this article interesting, you might find the following useful:
Hey guys, I’m Sumran. I’m a British 5th-year international medical student at the Medical University of Varna, Bulgaria. I transitioned straight from completing my A-Levels into university. Currently, I have interests in Psychiatry and Gastroenterology. Outside of medicine, I enjoy reading crime novels and visiting art exhibitions.