Medical Work Experience – A Guide

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Written By Dr Shane McKeown

Why do I need Medical Work Experience?

Work experience is essential for getting a first-hand understanding of what working as a doctor is actually like. Like most professions portrayed in the media, practising medicine is a world away from shows like ER and House.

These shows fail to reveal the true stresses and strains of the job, the hard work put in behind the scenes and simplify a job that is a complex mix of art, humanities and science. Reaching the interview stage with naive views about becoming a doctor is a waste of your own time as your lack of understanding will be spotted a mile away. If you are somehow able, against the odds, to gain a place at a medical school with a poor understanding of the realities of medicine you will be completely unprepared for your future career.

NHS Medical Work Experience Placements

The overwhelming majority of doctors work within state run NHS hospitals. Now more than ever the NHS is undergoing strains and change within the system. Your future work environment is heavily dependent on things like funding, staff shortages and morale. Getting your feet on the ward and talking to the multidisciplinary team you will eventually be working with is the best way to gauge current feeling amongst NHS employees.

There is certainly much to be learned that is hard to read about on the Internet or in a guide. Although medicine is a science, it is as much about the people you are caring for as it is about facts and figures. This is why subjective experience of an NHS work experience placement gives you essential insight into the humanity of doctors, patients and the wider hospital team.

The Realities of Working in Medicine

When working as a doctor on the ward you will of course be expected to have reached a certain academic standard and continue this throughout your career. The day-to-day pressures of medicine however are increasingly impacting on the ability for doctors to give the appropriate or needed amount of time and care to their patients.

Whilst funding and staffing concerns are not going away any time soon the GMC and NHS will want to know that the next generation of doctors are able to cope with situations like the winter bed crisis which has now become an annual occurrence. If you are not able to show that you can work under pressure and empathise strongly with your fellow man or woman you are unlikely to be successful in your application.

Speaking to senior medical staff will give real information and advice that is best heard first hand. You will then be able to reflect on this experience when it comes to writing your personal statement or speaking in your interview.

How Stressful Is Medicine?

Stating that a job is busy is a bit of a hollow statement. We could describe in fine detail the life of a doctor in one shift, but much of it would be alien or unrelatable. What you would miss would be the mental workload running through the doctor’s head, the stress of having to balance cold hard facts with human emotions and expectations.

For the vast majority of doctors however, the benefits of being able to make a real difference outweigh the bad days. It is up to you to at least have some hands on awareness of this when you apply to university. Work experience is surely the best way to achieve this.

Volunteering Work Experience for Medicine

Giving your time for free and in the pursuit of furthering yourself is one of the reasons you will want to volunteer before medical school. Bear in mind though that not all volunteering placements are equal. Many choose to volunteer at their local charity shop, there are many around the UK and it is relatively easy to pick hours that suit your schedule.

Even if the charity shop is giving money for cancer research, how relevant is it that you help out in their retail shop? While this will give you some face to face exposure with the public, you are not required to empathise and understand their personal concerns or draw upon all your learning.

Instead you will want to work in an environment which is closer to a patient population rather than a well one. Helping out at residential or sheltered accommodation for older people would give you much greater exposure to a caring discipline rather than working in sales.

Working with children or those with disabilities would give further insight into the types of populations you will deal with as a clinician. At the end of the day, you are doing all this because you want to and so that you have something to reflect on during your medical school application.

If you are already volunteering somewhere allied to health needs then there may be the chance of gaining some hands on experience, even if it was not offered or suggested in the beginning. Personally you may find that a particular medical area piques your interest, this is invaluable in helping your explore your early interest in the various specialities.

Hospital Placements for Medical School

Securing a hospital placement is vital for your medical school application. First and foremost, it shows you thought about applying to medicine in good enough time to organise shadowing. Secondly, hospital is where most of your clinical attachments will take place and your first two years of medicine, known as the Foundation Years.

Time spent in hospital will also reassure you that the right career choice is being made. It will also be a great psychological boost, seeing what you can become in just a few years if you put your mind to it. Again, the more involved you get and the more you think about your experiences the stronger your personal statement and interview performance will be.

Writing a medical personal statement or replying to questions at interview shouldn’t be a struggle. If you make the time and effort to see and hear all you can about medicine then you will find preparing your medical school application comes a lot more naturally.

Drawing on patient experience, how you see doctors perform their work and your own feelings about your time in hospital will make you a stronger candidate. Remember that in such a competitive field you will want to stand out from the crowd as much as possible.

How much Medical Work Experience do you need?

Simply put, the more quality and relevant experience you have the better. You have more to think and talk about and the volume will be a telling sign of your dedication to your future career. Balance is key however and you will want to have a reasonable understanding of the job.

While a two month summer placement at a neurosurgical unit may sound like a dream, if there is no patient interaction available because you are cooped up in an operating theatre all day, how much have you really learnt about the human side of practicing medicine?

Try to get a number of placements under your belt from different environments. This will allow you to comment of different patient needs and the many roles of a doctor. At this point any statements you make about future career aspirations will sound mature and well thought out rather than simply a superficial interest.

Universities are of course aware of practical limitations on your ability to secure medical work placements. School holidays are obviously a popular time but don’t forget that evenings and weekends should be utilised when exam revision isn’t pressing.

That being said, one of the qualities of a doctor is being able to manage multiple pressing priorities and using exams as an excuse for minimal work experience will not work. Admissions teams want to see there has been some sacrifice of social life to expand your understanding of medicine.

Medical Work Experience – Minimum Requirements

You can of course focus more on one area than another but his rough guide will point you in the right direction. Try to have this completed before you start writing your personal statement.

Long Term Volunteering – This will have to take place on evenings or weekends. We recommend working with children, the elderly and those with disabilities.

Social outreach – find local charities offering support to refugees and the homeless

Hospital placements – 2 to 3 weeks minimum shadowing different specialities is advisable

GP clinics – GPs make up the bulk of the medical workforce so at least a week placement is preferable

The Other Qualities of a Doctor

While you may be thinking of the daily work with patients a doctor must fulfill each day, there is continuous further learning, research and teaching. As seniority grows there is also a increasing aspect of management to the job as well.

Research and publishing journal articles is core to medicine and it’s tenet of lifelong learning. While you certainly aren’t expected to be published before medical school, getting involved in some academic research or laboratory experience is a great bonus to your application.

Some universities like Oxford and Cambridge are more academic and will have their eye out for applicants who have done further research and study. Labs are often happy to give some training to students as well, so they can get on with more complicated tasks and leave you to the simpler ones.

Medical Teaching and Management

As you move through your career your acquired knowledge and expertise will dictate a level of teaching and management of junior staff. This can be achieved in many ways at secondary school level, from working a sports team to cadets or teaching itself. Even a small amount of experience teaching or tutoring other will be of interest to those reviewing your application.

In the same vein, working in healthcare administration will show that you have attained some understanding of the level of bureaucracy that can be found with the NHS and clinical setting.

Medical Work Experience – When to get started?

It will come as no surprise that we recommend getting started as soon as possible. Regardless of your age there will always be appropriate placements that you can get involved in and learn from. If you are still to sit your GCSEs it may be wise to first gain more care based placements.

Your knowledge and understanding will increase rapidly over the next few years and you want to be able to get the most benefit from each placement. Start with organising social outreach or a long term (>1 year) social placement helping older people or those with disabilities.

When you are immediately post-GCSE and beyond you can then apply to more medical placements with your previous work experience to build upon. Remember that some hospitals have a minimum age requirement of 16 so it is best to check before submitting your application.

Excellence in Application

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