Medicine is a competitive course, and medical schools want to see applicants who are enthusiastic about being doctors. Medical work experience opportunities can help with this. Spending time in a healthcare environment can provide an insight into life as a doctor and healthcare in the UK. In this guide, we hope to explain what work experience is, why it is important and finish with ways to gain experience.
What does work experience for medicine involve?
Put simply, work experience in medicine gives a flavour of working in a healthcare setting. This usually involves spending a week or two of your GCSE or A-level studies shadowing a GP or hospital-based team. Schools often have dedicated work experience weeks, or allow students to negotiate a time that fits around their timetable (check with your teachers first!)
How much work experience do I need for medicine?
Previously, universities might have asked for at least 1 week of work experience shadowing a doctor. Nowadays, traditional work experience is no longer an absolute requirement for applications to most universities. They acknowledge that finding work experience can be difficult, especially for those with no contacts in the medical field, or for those living in rural areas with fewer local healthcare services.
However, all medical schools still consider work experience to be valuable, in whatever form it takes. Having some experience to discuss in your personal statement or at interviews is still crucial, even if you do not spend time with a doctor. For example, you can reflect on being a First Aider for St John Ambulance, or working as a healthcare assistant.
NB: Requirements for in-person work experience have relaxed further due to COVID-19 restrictions. However, this doesn’t mean you should stop searching. Some GP practices may continue to offer opportunities depending on local COVID restrictions. Virtual experiences are becoming increasingly relevant. Still, don’t worry if there are no opportunities or if you are shielding. You will not be disadvantaged given the current climate.
What do I gain from work experience?
Medical schools aren’t interested if you spend your work experience making cups of tea! The ability to learn and reflect on your experiences is more valuable. Using examples to build up your skills and show personal development is key. Ask lots of questions and learn from healthcare professionals – here are some suggestions (this isn’t a full list so please add your own ideas):
– How do we listen to patients? What communication techniques are used to improve information gathering? – Which pathways of care have patients been provided? – What are the roles of other healthcare professionals in patients’ care? How do they interact with the doctor and other members of the team?
Task – Consider writing a short reflection diary (around 500 words) on each day of your work experience. This tracks your learning progress and acts as evidence that you are committed to learning about Medicine.
Ward-based experience can be difficult to find. Some hospitals offer a small number of opportunities to schools, so talk to your teachers and careers advisers! Some regional trusts* take applications, but these are competitive and can take months to be processed. If you are keen, apply for these as early as possible. Generally, hospitals do not accept direct applications to a specific hospital or ward. However, each hospital is different and some tertiary care centres** may accept direct applications.
*A ‘trust’ is the organisation of hospitals within a region. This is how different hospitals work together to provide care to their local communities. They also organise work opportunities for students and staff.
**Tertiary care centres are places that offer specialist care to a specific group of patients (secondary care is hospital and primary care includes GPs and community nurse teams). This includes sexual health clinics, hospices, children’s hospitals etc.
What about GPs?
Opportunities in GP practices are often more accessible than those in hospitals, as each practice runs independently. Try fishing for experience by contacting multiple practices in your local area at once. As GP practices are often busy, your email may go unnoticed. Casting your net wide and being persistent is key to navigating this. Follow up on any unanswered emails, and consider contacting multiple staff members per practice (you can CC them into your email). Contacting doctors themselves can work, but involving the practice manager is often important, as they organise the admin and timetabling. Walking into a practice and handing them a letter of interest could even pay off, as they may appreciate your proactive energy.
“No one in my family works in healthcare so yeah, it’s defo harder! I emailed 30 GP practices and, thankfully, one came back. I applied for my local hospital work experience scheme which had a very early deadline and managed to spend time on the wards. Also, signed up to be a hospital volunteer – there was an application, interview and stuff for it, but I managed to get into Paeds A&E once weekly for a few months!”
James, 3rd year medical student
I couldn’t get any formal work experience with a doctor. HELP!!!
Firstly, don’t panic! Many universities understand the difficulties and will accept other experiences too. Contact local pharmacies, care homes, first-aid organisations, healthcare charities… anything! Working in a healthcare role, such as a healthcare assistant or carer, is often considered. If you are a young carer, it is also worth mentioning this. Universities care more about the quality of your care experiences. Spending a year volunteering with dementia patients can be more useful than spending one week with a neurosurgeon! Spread your wings and grab a hold of any opportunities you can.
– Work experience in medicine is a key part of the application process. It shows you are committed to becoming a doctor and understand the challenges it may present – There are opportunities to shadow doctors in various environments but they can be hard to access. Send your interest off in all directions, ASAP! – Using people you know in healthcare can make getting work experience easier – Use your time on work experience to understand the workplace and develop your knowledge. Remember to reflect on your experiences! – Shadowing other healthcare professionals or finding volunteering opportunities is just as valid as shadowing a doctor.