Speaking to pre-medical, pre-veterinary and pre-dental students on Oct. 17, Erika Tai, the program administrator of Brandeis Pre-Health Advising, discussed how students can gain useful clinical, research and volunteer experience throughout their undergraduate years. A discussion panel in which pre-health students described their various healthcare experiences so far followed her presentation.

Tai’s presentation first focused on the importance of gaining clinical experience. Clinical experience is all about “being in an … environment where you’re interacting with patients or a population with specific healthcare needs,” Tai said during her presentation. Those with specific healthcare needs include geriatrics and the blind or deaf. 

“Medical schools … want to see that you’ve actually taken the time to solidify that you are interested in the work. That it’s not just a title,” she said. Tai also explained that clinical experience is the best way to understand “a day in the life” of a healthcare professional. “It’s not all Grey’s Anatomy,” she said. “There’s a lot more scut work than most shows would ever show.” 

Tai said that clinical experience helps students develop teamwork skills, understand patient needs and get students more comfortable working in a healthcare setting.  She said Brandeis Pre-Health Advising recommends that undergraduate students get 100 hours of clinical experience across their four years. 

Some clinical experience opportunities pay student interns. At Scribe for America, students are paid to serve as medical scribes at hospitals. Others are unpaid, like many of the community service programs within the University’s Waltham Group. 

Shadowing “is a really flexible experience,” Tai said, explaining that this means that students can pursue shadowing even while taking a summer course or at home for winter break. It can also either be a short-term pursuit or involve long-term relationship-building with a physician. “If you’re ever in a busy time and you still want to feel like you’re doing something productive, shadowing is a fantastic way to do that,” Tai said.

She highlighted the Brandeis Summer Shadowing Program, “where we match students with surgeons and directors of programs at area hospitals” in Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and New York. 

Tai also explained the “metrics for involvement” that medical schools use to evaluate the efficacy of an internship. It often matters how long your activities last, whether you are demonstrating leadership in those activities and what legacy you leave behind at the places you worked for. Tai recommended keeping a journal to “track your experiences on an in-depth level.”

Tai also suggested using personal connections to gain health care experience opportunities. 

She warned students to be cautious about participating in “medical missions trips” and other volunteer efforts that lack sustainability and can “hurt your application.” “If it’s a one-time deal and they’re bringing in foreign folks to an underserved population and then they leave, the sustainability of that program is probably lesser than if they’re using local physicians, local dentists, local folks who are already on the ground and training them.” 

After Tai’s presentation, a panel of five undergraduates shared their experiences working in health care. For physician shadowing, Matt Cohen ’19 suggested to “start with who you know, if you have any connections,” explaining that he shadowed his friend’s dad, an anesthesiologist. To get additional experience, Cohen also volunteers at Perkins School for the Blind, where he helps visually impaired individuals with physical activities.

Felicia Lee ’17 explained that when she first wanted to be a pre-med student she “really had this desire to go abroad and help out populations in countries that don’t have the resources that a lot of American hospitals do.” After watching a 60 Minutes episode about a mobile health clinic in the Midwest, Felicia realized that “Americans need as much healthcare as people in other areas” and decided to search for mobile health clinics near her. Through internet research, she found the “Family Van” program, which provides underserved families with free medical screenings, such as blood tests. In the “Family Van,” she got to treat immigrant families who couldn’t speak English. 

Sami Schnall ’19 was initially unsure about whether to pursue the pre-med or the pre-dental track. She shadowed her own pediatric dentist and an oral surgeon she met by “asking around.”

“If you don’t know someone, you might know someone else who might know someone,” Schnall said. “[Doctors] love talking about their job[s], so don’t be too scared.” 

She also participated in the Northwell Healthcare Exploration program, which involved eight weeks of exposure to various aspects of medicine, including radiology, surgery and pediatrics, and also volunteered in an ambulance in Israel. These experiences made her realize that she did not want to pursue medicine,  and she is now a pre-dental student. “You never really know what you want to do until you question what you want to do,” Schnall concluded. 

Rebecca Albuquerque ‘21 is a coordinator of  “Companions to Elders,” a subgroup of the Waltham Group. Students involved in “Companions to Elders” volunteer at the “Memory Cafe,” which welcomes Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, and the Leland Home, where each patient has their own room and a nurse on-call.  Her close relationship with her grandparents fueled her interest in geriatrics and helping the elderly. Albuquerque explained that this experience has taught her “to be sensitive towards the patients” and “how to be patient … and how to communicate” with those suffering from Alzheimer’s.  

The last student panelist, Edwin Zhang ’19, explained that  “the main purpose of volunteering isn’t to build up your resume. … You really want to be driven by a passion to help others.” Edwin explained that he sees getting a volunteer opportunity at a hospital as a “shoo-in” as long as you show that you are “willing to prioritize the patients’ needs.” 

All of the panel members highlighted the importance of pursuing clinical experience out of genuine interest and passion for the healthcare field.