So, you want to go to medical school? In order to truly understand what you’re signing yourself up for, clinical experience is a huge advantage to acquire medical exposure and hands-on knowledge that will benefit your future. Not only is clinical experience important, but so is volunteering in an area that you are passionate about to show your commitment to helping others.
Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA)
A Certified Nursing Assistant is exactly what the name indicates — they work essentially as a nurse’s assistant. In order to get certified, many high schools and local technical colleges offer courses that vary in length from 4 to 12 weeks, depending on the hours per week the class meets. After finishing both coursework and clinicals, the next step is to get certified in the state you want to work in.
If you are completing the course in one state, but plan on working in another, make sure the state you want to work in doesn’t require more hours of coursework in order to become certified. For example, if you complete the course in 100 hours in one state, but that state you want to work in requires 120 hours of coursework, you cannot become certified to work in that state unless you retake the course.
Getting certified as a nursing assistant opens up a wide range of job possibilities, such as working in a nursing home, hospital unit, summer camp, etc. Specific positions include becoming a patient transporter, home health aid, and even a “camp nurse” in some areas.
In high school, I worked as a CNA in Palliative/Hospice Care before working for a few years in Float Pool. This experience taught me how to professionally care for patients when aiding them to bathe, eat, move, etc. It was very interesting to see how many medical students and residents were incredibly awkward when having to touch another individual for medical purposes. I believe this is because time was spent focusing on their books rather than their bedside manner.
In my personal opinion, working as a CNA can help you get a step ahead. When it comes to patient interactions and learning to work as a team in a healthcare setting, becoming a CNA will develop the up-close and personal skills that are so vital to success in the medical field.
Working as a medical scribe provides a realistic view of a physician’s workday. In undergrad, I worked as a scribe through ScribeAmerica and had an overall great experience. When I worked in the hospital emergency room, I was assigned to one physician per shift and was often accompanied by a medical student. This job was very detail-oriented and required a course on medical terminology before starting. (That course was paid for by ScribeAmerica.)
The only downside was working 8-12 hour shifts, which included occasional overnights on top of the heavy science coursework that was required as a pre-med student. Not only was the work tedious, but I needed to learn critical thinking in the high-intensity setting of the ER. Every hospital is different, however, and some don’t require their scribes to work overnight shifts or long hours. While ScribeAmerica mainly has ER positions for scribes, students may find work in other specialties depending on the city or location.
When applying for a scribe position, be sure to establish your hours and the expectations of your desired workload before starting. This is very important in maintaining the best work, school, and life balance.
First Aid Provider
Due to my CNA experience and First Aid certifications, I was able to work as a First Aid Provider at a summer camp in California. This experience was definitely minimal in comparison to the care I was used to providing as a CNA. However, this opportunity took me to a rural setting, pushed me to step outside of my comfort zone, and gave me great exposure to the mountains in Northern California — not to mention the amazing views! It offered a different type of experience in the medical field, which stood out on my application in comparison to other students who do more of the “usual” clinical experiences.
Shadowing a physician is a great glimpse into how each specialty differs on a day-to-day basis. From my personal experience and talking to peers, shadowing a primary care physician, surgeon, and specialist provided exposure to help make next-step career decisions. For some, shadowing helped them to decide what medical school they applied to based on their desired residencies. For others, shadowing helped determine what they did early on in medical school in order to obtain their desired positions.
The only downside to shadowing a physician is that some hospitals provide very minimal hours. If you want to feel prepared when it comes to patient exposure and medical terminology, a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), scribe, phlebotomist, or Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) may be best.
Learning how to draw blood as a phlebotomist can also provide more experience for pre-med students.
For those who want to work at a plasma donation center, like BioLife, my undergraduate classmates have mentioned that donation centers will often pay for your training and teach you how to correctly insert a needle. For those who want to work in a hospital setting, training to become a certified phlebotomist can take 4-8 months; however, these positions often pay more than donation centers.
The hours as a phlebotomist can be long — similar to a CNA or Scribe position — so make sure to plan accordingly with your schedule if you are working and taking classes simultaneously.
Emergency Medical Technician (EMT)
Depending on the program and your state, becoming an EMT usually takes around 120-150 hours of training. In certain areas, there are fast-track programs available to finish schooling sooner. Once completing your coursework, students must pass the National Registry Emergency Medical Technician cognitive exam before working.
While I have not personally worked as an EMT, my peers share that they have acquired an abundant amount of knowledge due to hands-on critical diagnoses and experiences. In comparison to paramedics, EMTs may have limited duties; however, these duties may still include stopping external bleeding, applying necessary braces, and administering CPR. This is another position that has lengthy shifts so be mindful, students!
Getting involved in medical volunteering is generally an easy way to get experience in the medical field. If you are looking for long-term experience, positions can be found at your local hospital, clinic, or nursing home. The best part about these positions is that they only require a few hours per week, or a handful of hours each month, so it is very doable for busy college students.
If you are interested in medical or non-medical volunteering abroad, I had a great experience with the company IVHQ (International Volunteer HQ) when I taught English at an elementary school in Naples, Italy. Due to the diversity of this experience, I discovered that I talked more about volunteering in my medical school interview than some of my clinical experiences! It was a MUCH cheaper option than studying abroad or volunteering abroad with a program through my university.
While volunteering in Italy, I was allowed to spend additional money on weekend trips to Rome, Florence, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast, which turned my adventure into not just a learning experience but a vacation all in one!