Medicine work experience

What is the point of doing work experience? Primarily, you should be carrying out work experience to decide whether medicine is really for you or not. Many people think they want to do medicine because they are 'good at science', but then discover through work experience that the actual job of being a Doctor is not for them. Medicine is a long and expensive training. Go into it with your eyes wide open. It is not just about science - it is also about people. And this is why Universities insist on applicants having relevant work experience in a health setting.'

You can ask for either 'work experience' (as a school student wanting to see what a job involves), 'work shadowing' (where you literally follow one individual around whilst they do their job, usually for a day) or 'voluntary work' (a regular 'job' with specific duties but where you don't get paid), part-time or holiday work (paid work that fits around your school commitments)

These opportunities are also good way to learn a lot about yourself as a person, what you enjoy doing, and what you can cope with in the very real world of health care. You may even end up considering not doing medicine as a result of the work experience or realising you are more interested in something 'like medicine' but not as demanding in terms of training - paramedic, psychologist, dietician, speech therapy, special needs teaching etc.

Most relevant work experience or similar placements are in patient-filled environments. Be aware that there may be 'confidentiality issues' and patient safety issues involved. In some areas or environments it may not be considered appropriate for a teenager to be involved for these reasons. Even if you are offered an opportunity, most ‘employers’ will ask for a DBS (Disclosure and Barring Service, previously CRB) check. The same will go for any paid or voluntary jobs in this area.

Always apply early. There are a lot of prospective Medical students (and Nursing applicants, and health-science applicants, and ....) and everyone is going to want a bite of the cherry. Make sure you are well organised and take advantage of anything and everything you see as a possible advantage to you. Don't just look at Hospitals of GP s surgeries - think laterally. Special Needs Schools, Old People's Day Centres, Homeless Shelters - all these can give you experience of dealing with people in a relevant health or care setting.

Applying for work experience will probably involve some form of interview, whether it is formal or informal. Make sure that you have honed your interview skills. Good interview skills are often attained by getting your school science teachers to stage mock interviews for you etc. As for Medical School Interviews themselves, there is no book better than the following, and its useful for other situations as well. ‘Medical School Interviews’ – by George Lee and Olivier Picard.

Where to Apply

Firstly, you should think about getting in contact with a local GP, preferably not your own: this helps with confidentiality issues and will probably help in getting a better experience. GP’s usually have a couple of work experience places available and they can prove to be a good first step in the learning curve. Generally, you will be assigned to administration tasks such as: filing records; making and taking telephone calls; reception work; dealing with prescriptions. If you’re lucky enough though, you can take the opportunity to shadow your GP, or nurse, in a few clinics, remembering that you’ll have to ask for patient consent. This should give you the chance to see how the GP’s clinics are run for a variety of different patients and illnesses. Accept what ever is offered to you and whatever tasks you are asked to do - its all valuable.

Following on from this, it would probably be wise to try and find some volunteer work at a Hospice; Youth Club; Disability centres; Elderly People’s Home or Care centre. For ease, the following section will be broken down. Again, it is important you apply early, and are prepared for interviews too:

It is advisable that you apply for a placement to your local Hospice nice and early (bearing in mind you have to be 16+). Volunteer work is popular here and competition for the few places is extremely high. If you’re lucky enough to get in, this could be an invaluable experience to you. You can get close patient contact and can actually sit down and talk to people, whether it is nurses, the patients, your co-volunteers or the families that come to visit. Don’t be afraid: your job maybe to offer tea and biscuits but there’s no reason why you can’t grasp the opportunity to find out more. During your time here you may even experience death. Try to see how you deal with these sorts of situations as they can be easily talked about in Medical Interviews. '

Youth Club 
This is an engaging work scenario. Working with kids is always great but they can be quite mischievous to deal with too! It brings different scenarios into play and there’s a whole hoard of different things you can do here; from sports to arts to quizzes. Well worth doing a day a week or so (possibly more in holidays) and again it’s quite interesting to bring up in interviews. Something very similar to this is V-Project; a sports development scheme set up to give opportunities those less well off. Not only can you make friends, you are given an important leadership role in their society and this is an excellent opportunity for those who like working with the youth.

Disability Centres and Special Schools 
Disabled people are often great people to work with. They are optimistic in their approach to life and they rarely ever complain. Working with such people can be a difficult task, having to care for a lot of their needs, however it is without doubt one of the most rewarding pieces of work you can do. There are many different groups that you can enrol for however one of the most popular seems to be ‘Vitalise’. It is important that if you do decide to work with disabled people, you will need to be fully trained.

Care/Nursing Home 
This, like the Hospice, is generally for the elderly. There is this common impression that elderly people are boring and that there’s nothing you can do for them, however it is most definitely a myth. Working here can provide you with the opportunity to talk to and interact with elderly people. You can see their daily routines and it can be quite interesting to see how different people have been affected by different illnesses e.g. diabetes will limit food options and patients with amnesia need to be talked to carefully, so as not to make them feel bad. A couple of weeks continuous is probably the best way to get the most out of this experience but it is also possible to carry on thereafter and revisit once a week.

An extremely difficult piece of work experience to get under your belt is at a hospital (Again, you will have to be 16+ by law). No doubt this is one of the most sought after work experience positions and competition is huge, simply because hospitals cannot afford to be looking after too many students; indeed many hospitals don’t offer any places. If you do manage to get one though, I suggest you relish the opportunity. It is a common question for people to be asked how to contact a hospital for a placement there and it is paramount that you apply extremely early, at least 6 months before you hope to be working there. The best way to get in touch is to phone up the ‘Voluntary Services’ department of every hospital within your reach, giving as much information as you can. It is however easier, to get a placement, if you have ‘contacts’ in the medical profession, especially if they work in the hospital you are trying for. Some hospitals will interview candidates to see if they are fit to work in the environment whereas others will be less pressing towards the matter.

It will vary depending on where you go as to what work experience you will be offered, but you will almost certainly be offered time with a doctor in his clinics. Radiology is also another popular department as it is easy to have a look at what is going on and have things explained to you as they occur. The only legal procedures you’ll be able to see at 16-18 though are endoscopies etc… They’re well worth it though and a day or two seeing some of these is without doubt time well spent. Other departments that you really can enjoy include Haematology, Cardiology, A&E, General Surgery, ICU (usually conjoined with Cardiology), Anaesthesia, Dermatology and ENT.

Getting a week's work experience in a pharmacy shop is usually not difficult, as no CRB check is required. If you have one near you, try to apply to one closely linked (even onsite) to a particular GP surgery as this may mean you are given the chance to talk to a GP. A placement in a pharmacy allows you many opportunities, which include but not limited to: interacting with the public in a professional role (developing communication skills), understanding the role of a pharmacist in primary care, understanding the role of a pharmacist in the multidisciplinary team, how pharmacists aid in prevention of disease as well as treatment through advice and services such as fresh start and cholesterol checks, role in needle exchange programmes, how they can assist patients in remembering to take their medication regularly and delivering their medication to their homes.

Primary Schools and Cubs/Brownies 
Volunteering in a school or for a Cub/Brownie pack is an excellent way to gain some work experience of working with children. All you need is a couple of hours to make a regular weekday afternoon/evening commitment. As a Doctor you will have to deal with children (and parents) in stressful situations - get some experience in now! There is a knack to dealing with kids and most of it is to do with confidence, so this is excellent experience to get under your belt.

Other areas to think about 
There are hundreds of other areas of work that are involved with people in a care-setting. Some of them might not be as obvious as the ones above. Homeless Shelters/Soup Kitchens, Drug Rehab Centres, Mountain Rescue, Mental Health Day Centres, Dentists, Meals on Wheels, Prison Visiting, Babies Clinics/Community Midwives, Opticians, Refugee Centres, Blood Donation centres etc. Think outside the obvious - where do people with 'problems' get help? This is where you need to be looking.

Charity Shops 
It is also an idea to try and go around town and see if there are any charity shops that are willing to take you on as a volunteer. If you are thinking 'Oh no, I'll have to deal with lots of old ladies....', then you might like to rethink training as a Doctor. You'll see lots of 'old ladies' in your career and if you can't be bothered to 'deal with them' now, then forget medicine as a career.

The best way to ask is to make a CV, and then go to each charity shop and ask to see the manager. Just explain that you’re looking to work there as a volunteer and give them the CV. Now most people think that this is probably going to be a boring job, but you’d be surprised at the variety of things one can do in a charity shop. You can work upstairs working with all the goods in preparation for selling them, or you can work on the shop floor as an assistant. Work long and hard and you may even be lucky enough to work at the till. Often travel expenses are reimbursed. It is all good 'people' experience - both learning how to talk to different people and realising that the world is a bigger, harder, place for most people outside your small world.

Overseas Work 
Getting medical work experience locally isn't always easy. Many students now choose to top-up their experience in the UK with a hospital placement overseas. A reputable provider of medical work experience will offer a programme that combines global health education with hospital shadowing experience. This allows you to get a real insight into the day-to-day life of a doctor, whilst also learning about the disparities in global healthcare. Shadowing doctors overseas can give you the opportunity to see the symptoms and treatment of diseases that are rare or non-existent in the UK. Exposure to a wide range of different cases can give you a real insight into their future career, and what path you might wish to take. Shadowing doctors overseas can also really help to make your personal statement stand out, and provide you with multiple unique talking points at interview.

Other Work/Experience 
The obvious opportunity is St John Ambulance training schemes. They offer over 70 courses for people to learn and their life saver course is extremely popular, even amongst the general public. This is a good opportunity to learn about First Aid and can be useful to talk about as a practical experience is you become an active member.

More and more people are starting to do the Duke of Edinburgh award. The scheme is extremely popular and if you do decide to join, you can find yourself helping people or the community, getting fitter, developing skills and going on expeditions. The best thing about it is that you can choose the things you want to do yourself and still enjoy your time learning and integrating with different societies. Although not free, it is highly recommended by many.

Open University Courses (YASS scheme) are quite popular however they can be somewhat time-consuming. The modules are generally recommended for those who have a deep interest in a particular module and would potentially be a good talking point at interview, and a great opportunity to show motivation. The only way to apply for the YASS scheme is through your school and there is a fee of around £90.

Clubs and Societies form a large part of many applicants’ week. Whether it is sports, music, drama or science, clubs and societies show that you have the ability to relax and take time out to do something you enjoy (especially important for such a difficult and long degree). You need to show Universities that you are a dynamic person; someone who can enjoy their time by balancing their workload with other activities/hobbies.

How to get work experience

Look for opportunities available on a general volunteer website like Charity Jobs - Volunteering. Even if that specific 'job' doesn't appeal to you, use the contact details to ask for some other opportunity. 
Google search for 'Hospice', 'Geriatric', 'Special School' etc in your local area.

Who do you, your parents, your extended family etc know who either works in Health Care, or do they know someone else who does? (Your parents Facebook friends might be useful here...).

How to APPLY for work experience

You can make an initial enquiry by phone.

  • This is usually the best way to start if you don't have the name of a specific person to address an email or letter to. If its a Hospital or similarly large workplace, then ask for the Human Resources Dept. If its a smaller place like a care home, ask to speak to the Manager. 'Hallo, I wonder if you can help me. I'm 18 and about to apply for Medical School.' Good start - clearly stating who you are and what the call is about. 'I'm looking for relevant work experience or voluntary experience to support my application'. Brief - and to the point. Don't waffle - these are busy people. 'Would your care home/school/hospital dept (whatever) have anything available?'. They may then simply put you through to the relevant person (write their name down....) or ask you for more details like dates and your availability or your areas of interest. Keep your replies brief and relevant. If its clear they can't help you, then thank them for their time and try the next phone number on your list.
  • Follow-up letter or email. If there is a possibility of some opportunity for you, they may ask you to write or email with some more details about who you are and what you want. Again, keep this brief and to the point - they are not interested in which Unis you are applying to or cut-and-paste chunks from your PS. Who are you? What do you want? Why? What can you offer them in terms of your skills, other experience - or just your commitment?
  • Consider any opportunity offered. If a care home offers you the chance to join in with the regular 'activities' sessions (craft, outings, sing-songs) don't turn it down because it isnt 'medical'. It IS relevant - any experience of dealing with people in a care setting, especially if this is outside your comfort zone or 'background' is very much worth doing, and may lead on to other things with that organisation.
  • If you do get offered something, get clear details of what the organisation or employer expects. A regular commitment? What exact hours/days? Who will you be working with (get a name)? And think about how you will get there/get home - what transport is available?
  • After any work experience or voluntary work opportunity ALWAYS write and thank them for the opportunity they gave you. This makes it more likely that they will write you a good reference if you ever ask for one, and it will make it more likely they will help other prospective medics in the future!

A Few Forgotten Facts

  • Most people do 4-6 weeks of work experience (either odd days that add up or a stretch in a school-holiday) and this is sufficient providing you have learnt a lot from your experiences and can articulate these benefits at a Med School interview What did you learn about communicating with people? What surprised you about working in health care rather than being a patient? What did you learn about current issues in the NHS? What are the emotional stresses of working in medicine - and could you cope with these?
  • Getting a placement in a Hospital is useful - but it won't give you any obvious advantage over someone who worked with, for instance, a speech therapist instead. It's what you learnt from doing it that counts, not the 'prestige' of the setting.
  • Gap Years - you do not have to fill your Gap year with obviously Medical related work. Universities do tend to like some work experience, especially if followed with some form of travel, however they will not expect you to be working the whole year round. Working or volunteering in a care home or other health/care setting for several months followed by a Working Holiday in Australia or BUNAC in the USA are all valuable 'life experience' opportunities and will help your confidence and general maturity.

A Doctor's Perspective on Work Experience

The following is not a definitive guide, it is what I believe, in consultation with colleagues, an applicant should be aiming to achieve prior to application.

1. It is not Work Experience, Voluntary Work, Work or Extra-Curriculars that counts, it's experience of the above.

2. Through your experience you should demonstrate an understanding of the role of a (junior) doctor in modern medicine in both a primary and secondary care settings.

3. Through your experience you should demonstrate an understanding of caring for people and the harsh realities of illness.

4. Through your experience you should develop skills that would be applicable to medicine, including but not limited to; communication, patience, responsibility, accuracy, punctuality, reliability, team work, individual work, leadership, teaching, learning, etc.

That's really about it. It doesn't matter whether you learn about the above as a paid HCA, volunteer nursing assistant or sixth-former mindlessly following a consultant for a few days, just so long as you learn it.

What to Wear

A lot of people worry about what they should wear when on work experience. It depends quite a lot on where you are doing your work experience and what it involves. For any direct clinical experience (shadowing/observing doctors); clean, smart clothes (not jeans/trainers) are recommended, though a full suit and tie for men aren't needed. In hospitals, remember the 'bare below the elbows' rule - wear shirts with short sleeves and remove any watches/jewellery from the wrists. For females, remember you may be on your feet for a long time so comfortable shoes are important. It is also worth avoiding skirts that are too short and tops which are too low cut. For other placements, more casual attire may be appropriate.

Anything else that should be added to the list? Let us know in the comments. 

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