The Hierarchy of Medical Work Experience

Read on to find out the truth behind the hierarchy of work experience and what types of placements you should be considering.

Author: Paula Counsell

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Why do some people believe in a hierarchy of medical work experience?

This is a well-meaning but often misleading idea whereby some people believe that certain kinds of work experience, such as shadowing in a hospital, are more applicable to medical school applications than others.

This idea of a hierarchy of medical work experience can be unhelpful for people looking to study Medicine, as it can stop people from pursuing useful opportunities which would strengthen their application.

Unless you are fortunate enough to have a family member or family friend who is a doctor at a local hospital, many of you will struggle to organise hospital-based placements. But do not despair, there are many other types of work experience that you can organise to discuss in your Personal Statement. Here’s a quick guide to the hierarchy of work experience and what you can gain from each type.

What is relevant medical work experience?

The key thing to remember with medical work experience is medicine is fundamentally about people. Therefore, work experience with people can count towards your application. Keep it relevant to the different aspects of Medicine and you’ll be providing value to yourself, your Personal Statement and to your Interviews.

Shadowing is very valuable. It allows you to see exactly what a doctor’s work entails, and it can give you a clear idea of a doctor’s day-to-day tasks. It is key to remember that many experiences involving shadowing, GP surgeries or hospitals tend to be short. It’s why additional experiences in care homes and pharmacy placements, as mentioned below, are also of equal value.

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Hospital Placements

This is the type of work experience that every wannabe medical student dreams of. Going to a hospital to attend ward rounds, clinics and operating theatres is what everyone thinks of when they describe medical work experience. 

Many think this is the most valuable type of work experience and it should be the one you try the most to find. You are able to see numerous patients, talk to doctors about the profession and learn some basic medical sciences – all great things to discuss in your Personal Statement.

How To Get The Most Out Of Hospital Work Experience

Firstly, when you arrive talk to your supervisor and ask them what they think the most useful and interesting things are to see are – a work experience bucket list if you will. Every speciality is different, as are the most useful learning experiences associated with each one. Your consultant supervisor will be the person best placed to advise you on what is going on during your time there, and more importantly, what is worth seeing. If you make it clear you want to see as much as possible, they will be more than happy to help you get the most out of your experience.

Secondly, start your day in the hospital early. As horrific as an 8am handover or ward round sounds, these opportunities are some of the best to see a wide range of things. The doctors at the handovers and ward rounds will discuss or visit every patient in their care. 

This means you get the chance to hear about around twenty different patients and their stories, and meet them with the doctors. That’s a lot of potential points for discussion in your personal statement and interviews. Think about the disease you hear about – what is the science behind it? Think about the stories you hear – are there any interesting legal or ethical aspects worth thinking about? Think about the patients’ experiences – what impact has it had on their lives? How has the medical profession been able to help? But, as many patients you see will be there for more than one day, going to one ward round or handover is probably enough as the patients won’t change much each day!

Thirdly, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There will be a lot you don’t know – drugs, disease, phrases, procedures etc. But, if you won’t gain anything unless you engage with them and try your best to work out what’s going on. Doctors are used to answering questions, both from medical students and patients, and are very skilled at explaining medical science to people of all understanding levels. They won’t be annoyed if you ask (as long as you are polite), and will be more willing to show you interesting things if you show that you are keen.

Finally, try to talk to some patients staying in the wards. Though you won’t be able to take a detailed medical history, you can still hear their story and learn a lot about what they’ve been through. Patients love talking to students as they are often very bored in hospital! Just explain who you are and that you would like to hear about what has brought them to hospital. Then try to find out what happened to them for them to be in hospital and what has happened since they have been there. A good thing to do after speaking to a patient is to discuss it with one of the doctors, they’ll be able to fill in the gap of things you missed, and explain in more scientific terms what’s been going on.

GP Placements

Of similar value to hospital placements, GP surgeries are a great place to gain work experience. These placements have the same benefits as hospital placements with regards to seeing patients, hearing about the NHS from doctors and gaining a greater understanding of how the systems link together. 

However, it can be difficult to see patients at GP placements and some GP surgeries are apprehensive to allow students in during consultations. Nevertheless, you can still help out and see how a GP surgery runs without seeing patients – this is still valuable experience.

Virtual GP Work Experience 

If you’re unable to get work experience, don’t worry, there is a newly released platform that allows you to gain a virtual work experience and show your interest in the field without having to physically be there. This has become especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic. Read on for more information on Observe GP, the virtual medical work experience platform.

Physiotherapy placements and Pharmacy placements

These placements are not quite as valuable as the above placements, but can still be useful, especially if you are struggling to find others. Physiotherapy and pharmacy placements offer great experience to hear about patients’ stories and how they are coping with their illnesses. 

  • Physiotherapy placements can be a useful chance to learn about patients’ experiences of their injuries and the effect these have on their lives. 
  • Pharmacy placements can be a chance to talk to people collecting their prescriptions and learn about the common drugs and their uses from pharmacists. 

Nursing Home Volunteer Work

These are great longer-term placements to experience a large aspect of the healthcare system. You can talk to people, hear about their experiences and gain a greater understanding of how social care functions in parallel with the hospital and GP care.

This is a great placement to give up an hour or two a week to volunteer at a nursing home to talk to residents and play cards or board games with them. It also shows you have the necessary compassion of a future doctor – something that is difficult to believably convey in a Personal Statement. Showing a sustained interest in working with people, especially those who are vulnerable, can do your application just as much good as observing a surgeon, even if being in a hospital seems more immediately relevant.

Note – the Medical Schools Council states that working in catering or customer service qualifies as relevant experience because it involves interacting with people, patience and teamwork.

Final medical work experience tips

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