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Why is medical work experience important?
Medical work experience is important for many reasons.
You get first-hand experience of what working in medicine is like, which can be quite hard to fully comprehend without doing some kind of work experience. Doing work experience gives you a valuable opportunity to ask medical staff questions about what their job involves day to day, what the best bits are and about some of the challenges.
It is vital to have some medical work experience to write about in your Personal Statement (if you’re struggling with your statement, 6med can help you out). Most medical schools like to see some kind of medical work experience or experience in a people-focused setting, but most do not have specific requirements.
It is worth checking the specific medical school degree pages or on UCAS to ensure you meet any requirements in terms of work experience.
Work experience is a great way to show that you understand the realities of being a doctor and gives you a chance to show admissions tutors a glimpse of your reflective skills in your Personal Statement.
By simply having work experience in your Personal Statement, this will show a commitment to the course and let you show your knowledge of the profession.
Medical work experience will give you a more in-depth knowledge that will be beneficial at interviews.
If you have written about work experience in your Personal Statement, interviewers may ask about this, but it can also be good to work anecdotes or reflections from your work experience into other answers. Here you can demonstrate that you have a rich understanding about the role of a doctor and the qualities needed.
It is not just useful for questions about your work experience and the role of a doctor, but the wider lessons you learn from work experience will give more depth and show an understanding in other answers you give, and enable you to talk about the clinical side of medicine with more confidence.
Types of medical work experience
There are different types of medical work experience that you can get. Here is a run down of the different types of work experience you might consider.
Hospital work experience
Work experience in a hospital will likely allow you to observe multiple things. You may get to shadow different healthcare professionals, from doctors to nurses to pharmacists. Observing the multi-disciplinary team is a unique experience that you will be unlikely to see in any other setting, with so many healthcare professionals working together. This is a great opportunity to observe the teamwork and communication that is so vital in medicine.
With hospital-based work experience, you may see a variety of patients with a variety of different medical problems. Try to use the opportunity to go with a junior doctor when they talk to the patient, to gain an understanding of what it is like from their perspective. Observing junior doctors is a great opportunity to see what kind of role you will fill upon completion of medical school.
GP Work experience
Doing work experience at a general practice will give you an insight into the busy work life of a GP and the opportunity to learn how a general practice is run.
Getting to observe a GP in clinics is an amazing opportunity, as you will likely have only seen a GP as a patient before. The variety of patients with a wide variety of medical problems each only have the same length consultation during which the GP must learn about the problem and decide on a course of action.
Watch for how the GP manages the patient’s ideas, concerns and expectations whilst also gather all the information they need for a plan of action, all in 10 minutes! You will see many important characteristics of a doctor whilst shadowing a GP.
Work experience in a general practice may not involve solely observing a GP. You might get the chance to help the receptionists or learn about the role of the nurses or practice manager. Use this opportunity to learn about all of the roles in a general practice and how they come together to deliver a great service for patients.
Care Home Work experience
Local care homes can be a great choice for gaining work experience. This will give you a unique insight into healthcare in a specific environment. Often you will gain experience in a volunteer role and have the opportunity to talk to residents and get an understanding of what they need from a care and medical perspective.
Other Work experience
There are other types of work experience that you might be able to acquire that have transferable skills and help you build qualities that are important for going into the medical field.
People-focused experience is important and can be utilised on your Personal Statement and at interview to show that you have developed skills vital for medicine.
Volunteering is a valuable experience even if you have medical work experience too, as it requires lots of the qualities you will need to go into medicine. You get real hands on experience, as well as the opportunity to develop skills that are essential for a career in medicine such as teamwork, initiative and organisation.
Many universities are now placing equal emphasis on work experience and volunteering so try to do some at some point. This is not the case for all medical schools however, so be sure to check each one carefully to ensure you meet the requirements.
Some examples of places you could look for volunteering are:
As a St John’s cadet (under 18s only), you will get to provide first aid at events and develop your communication, teamwork and leadership skills. This is great hands on experience helping members of the public in a first aid capacity, and a real insight into part of what medicine involves.
This will give you the opportunity to directly interact with patients and see the palliative side to medicine. Hospices are unique places where the care of patients holistically is emphasised; you will be able to observe and help out with the incredible care they give.
Local charities are always looking for help at their shops. You will be able to learn more about how charities work and interact with the public in the people-facing role.
This is a great chance to work with children in a caring environment. You will be able to build lots of the qualities you need for medicine.
This is a less common choice for volunteering but incredibly rewarding. Working with children with additional needs or disabilities is a unique opportunity to give back and develop important skills. It is a chance to work with a group of people you are unlikely to otherwise work with.
Some hospital trusts take volunteers. This will give you experience on wards, just in a different capacity. Volunteering in a hospital can give you otherwise rare patient contact, which can teach you a lot. You will also be able to observe the healthcare staff for a different perspective which can be just as valuable. Some examples of volunteering tasks you may be asked to do are talking to lonely patients on the wards or making tea and coffee for patients.
How to get work experience
You can find work experience in a number of ways, and the steps you might take for different types of work experience vary. Here is a step by step approach to finding work experience.
Two steps that you should take first for all types of work experience are:
- Ask the people you know. If you have medical staff in your network of family and friends, you are at an advantage. Knowing someone who works in the NHS personally who is willing to let you shadow them is often your best option.
- Try asking your school. Some schools have a great alumni network who offer to take students for work experience. Don’t worry if your school doesn’t have this, your teachers may know people personally who would be willing to let you shadow them, or know people who have recently graduated university who went to your school.
Do not rely on someone in your network offering you work experience. Don’t stop at these 2 steps; they should be concurrent with you being proactive and trying to find work experience outside of your network. Here are specific steps for finding work experience for each of the types discussed above.
How To Get Hospital Work Experience
- Find a list of all of the hospitals near you and check out their work experience page. This is usually pretty easy to find by putting the name of the hospital or trust and work experience into Google. It is important that you know how the hospital allocates work experience. Some have a centralised process where you apply for work experience and if successful, get put on a week-long course or something similar. Other hospitals do not have this and it is up to you to contact departments or doctors directly.
- Contact the education department if your local trust has one, most do. They will be able to signpost you and advise you on how to obtain work experience if their online page does not do so already.
- Apply via the centralised process. Sometimes this requires you to go to school in a specific catchment area so be sure to check the requirements before you apply.
- Contact departments directly. This could be via phone or email, whatever you can find online. Don’t just contact one and wait for them to get back to you as this may take a while, especially as you will get more rejections than successes. With this approach, be sure to check the age requirements as some departments such as paediatrics, often have an age limit of 18.
- Contact doctors or nurses directly. Often you will be able to find an email address or contact number for the lead consultant or nurse in charge online. Make sure to be polite, introduce yourself and be clear on what you are looking for.
How To Get GP Work Experience
- Email or call local general practices – not your own though as they will not accept you for confidentiality reasons!
- Look for general practices further afield as they are more likely to take you if you are unlikely to know any of their patient population. Even considering looking in a different town or city.
- If you have a good relationship with your GP, it may be worth asking them if they know any other doctors that might accept you for work experience.
How To Get Care Home Work Experience
- Email or phone local care homes in your area. They are often more than happy to take on volunteers!
- If you know anyone who works in a care home it is worth asking if you can observe them.
Other Related Work Experience
How you acquire other related work experience depends on what you have in mind. If you have something specific you want to do such as volunteering at a special school or local hospice, try to find an email or phone number on their website and contact them. You will be more likely to be accepted for volunteering than work experience so be sure to know you can make the commitment and be clear about how much time you are willing to volunteer in your first email or phone call.
If you are interested in becoming a St John’s cadet, check out their website here. To find volunteering in your local hospital trust, try to find their volunteer page online as there is usually a portal which you can apply through. Hospitals often require long-term commitment such as 6 months or more so be sure you can meet the minimum time requirement before applying.
What to do when you are on work experience?
Work experience can be daunting, especially if you are going to a new place and don’t know the person who has agreed for you to shadow them!
It is important to conduct yourself professionally as if you were going to work.
Leave extra time to ensure you arrive on time and wear professional clothes. Something that you might wear to sixth form or college if you are required to wear smart clothes. Be sure that you can be ‘bare below the elbows’, so if you wear a shirt or long-sleeved top make sure you can roll it up if need be. This also means no jewellery or watches on your hands or arms.
For guys you probably want to wear a shirt (no tie) and smart trousers.
For girls you probably want to wear something smart such as smart trousers or skirt and a blouse or top. Blazers are not necessary, and you would likely take one off anyway.
Make sure to thank the person who you are shadowing upon meeting with them and you can offer to help if they have any small tasks for you. Use the opportunity to ask questions, although you need to wait for an appropriate time if they are in the middle of something.
It might be worth noting down any questions you have and ask next time they have a break or a few minutes when not with patients.
Feel free to take notes on work experience, and this includes about patients. However, you must maintain confidentiality so do not write down any identifiable information about the patient such as date of birth or name. You can write patient A, 63M and things about their condition or treatment but nothing that someone reading your notes could use to identify the patient with.
It is also important that you do not discuss the specifics of patients outside of your work experience, again, being careful to not include any identifiable information.
Make the most of all of the opportunities you are given on work experience. Take the chance to observe different healthcare professionals and procedures, take the chance to go with the doctor to talk to the patient.
Engage and ask questions, as most people will be more than happy to answer. This doesn’t just have to be about the patients and things you see. You can ask broader questions about being a doctor such as about the work life balance, or the most challenging part of the role is. You could even ask about the variety in the career and how being a doctor is changing over the coming years.
This is a golden opportunity if you get to ask a doctor questions so use it! If your work experience is many days long, at the end of each day come up with at least 3 questions to ask the following day, to increase your understanding of the role and the NHS.
If there is something you would like to see or learn about, ask. Most people are more than happy to accommodate you and help you gain a real insight into the profession you are going into.
How To Reflect On Work Experience?
Work experience can be difficult to get, and medical schools are aware of this. Try not to worry too much about what exactly you will be doing and the length of work experience you manage to acquire.
The most important thing is to reflect on your work experience.
Medical schools are looking to see what you have learned from your experience. This isn’t the steps in a cardiac surgery you observed, but the wider lessons you have taken away about the role of a doctor, the qualities needed and the NHS.
Reflection is about reviewing, analysing and evaluating experiences. You need to think about what you have observed and draw learning points from this. Your reflection can include what you saw or did, but this should be primarily to give context to your learning points. Including interesting cases is useful to include in your notes however, for your Personal Statement (remember to keep all patient information anonymous).
It is important to remember what you did in order to reflect on it! Take a small notebook with you on work experience and take quick notes as you go along, noting down key things you saw or thoughts you had that you want to develop later.
Don’t worry if you are too busy taking the experience in and asking questions to take notes. Just be sure to write everything down in your breaks or at the end of the day. Reflection is great for revisiting your experiences and considering your behaviours and thoughts again.
Some important things to consider when reflecting on your medical work experience are the qualities and skills are needed to be a good doctor and the challenges of the role. You might also want to start thinking about how you are suited to the role and if there are other experiences that have shown you that you possess some of these qualities.
There is no right or wrong way to reflect as it is a very personal exercise.
Everyone has their own style, but a good place to start with reflection are these 3 easy steps:
My Own Personal Experience
“I was fortunate to spend 4 days shadowing an anaesthetist in theatres. I was very unsure what to expect and as no one in my family or friend network is a doctor and I wasn’t sure quite what the job of a doctor entailed either.
Asking lots and lots of questions really helped me to make the most of the experience and gain a really good understanding of different options within medicine and I also learned a fair bit about anaesthetics that I still carry with me today!
This experience was not only great for me personally but to include in my Personal Statement some reflection on my time in theatres. Watching the incredible communication and teamwork of the surgical teams whose members had met just minutes prior was amazing and really showed me how vital these two skills are in medicine.
I also learned about working in the NHS – how it is like a machine and if one part has an issue, that impacts the rest of the chain. A lack of bed space meaning an operation could not go ahead gave context to the news stories and showed some of the challenges of the system, despite all of the staff trying their best.
A very different experience which allowed me to build upon my own skills was volunteering at a special school for two years, which looking back now, laid the foundations for my interest in paediatrics.
I felt completely out of place during my first few weeks in a class of completely non-verbal children. I was troubled that I did not know what they wanted and did not know what to do when they became upset.
Throughout the first year, my non-verbal communication skills improved massively, and the experience made me a more open person, working with children who have additional needs. As well as improving my communication skills, organisational skills and teamwork, it has made me more patient, kinder and more open to people who would be considered different by societies standards.”
Work experience top tips
All of this information can seem quite a lot to take in! Here are my top 3 tips for each stage of your work experience journey.
Finding Work Experience
- Ask everyone you know. Asking doesn’t hurt and you never know who your family and friend network may know.
- Be persistent! You are likely to get lots of rejections and this can feel disheartening but keep calling/ emailing people – it will be worth it when you find work experience!
- Don’t be afraid to explore different options. Everyone wants GP or hospital work experience but sometimes this just isn’t possible. Explore your other options such as care homes and other volunteering opportunities as well as continuing to try to get NHS work experience.
Making the most of work experience
- Prepare beforehand. Get organised so that you know where you need to go and if you need to take any paperwork, so that you don’t have to stress when you arrive and can make the most of the experience!
- Ask questions to further your understanding – at least 3 a day!
- Get involved. If you are given an opportunity to do or see something say yes! It can be easy to feel afraid and like you don’t know anything relevant but really take in the experience and make the most of opportunities.
Reflecting on work experience
- Keep a diary of what you have done.
- Focus on your learning points from your experience and try to link these to your application to medicine. For example, you may have learned the importance of communication from your work experience so try to think how experiences in your life have helped you improve your communication.
- Reflect soon after the time. Try to reflect at the end of each day as this is when your memory will be freshest. Coming back to reflect a few months later will be much more difficult.
A small after note in the COVID-19 pandemic
It would be remiss not to mention the current circumstances; organising and carrying out work experience will undoubtedly be more difficult this year. Work experience that you had organised is looking unlikely to go ahead in the summer holidays and you may not be able to do any before UCAS applications have to be in. There are a couple of things that you can still do and reflect on as an alternative to the usual medical work experience you might have hoped to do.
- Brighton and Sussex medical school have launched a free online work experience course with different modules to teach you about the role of a doctor and the NHS. Access the course for free here.
- The Royal College of General Practitioners has made a free and interactive online video platform for exploring the role of GPs and the wider primary care team. To get access you need to fill in this short survey to get an email with a link to the platform.
This may not be an option for everyone but if you are interested and feel it is suitable for you and your circumstances, there are opportunities to volunteer in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many hospitals are recruiting volunteers from the general public to do tasks such as video chat lonely patients or picking up medications for the wards. Check out your local hospital or trust for more information.
Other volunteering such as joining a local group that delivers food and medicines to vulnerable people may be an option for you. There are lots of ways you can volunteer in the pandemic and even if it is not directly related to medicine, you can still use this in your application and get experience of being in a caring role.
Continue to develop your knowledge of the role of a doctor and the NHS
Medical schools this year will be appreciative that you may have not done work experience before the pandemic hit. But you can still continue to develop your knowledge in this area.
This could be by talking to any healthcare staff you know about working in the NHS and about their role, or by reading books written by UK doctors about their time in the NHS or by watching YouTube videos.
Anything that allows you to get an insight into the profession is useful as you will still need to demonstrate an understanding of the role of the doctor, with or without work experience.
Medical Work Experience Closing Notes
Finding, doing and reflecting on work experience can all seem quite a lot if you are just at the start of your journey!
Break the process down into manageable chunks and tackle each bit one at a time. Work experience is an amazing opportunity for you to not only improve your medical school application, but also experience for yourself what working as a doctor involves.
This article was written with significant contribution from Safiya Zaloum.