What questions should I ask when I shadow a PA?

We get this question all the time, and it’s understandable.  No one wants to look stupid, and no one wants to kill a networking opportunity before it even gets off the ground.  But you won’t learn much if you clam up for fear of putting your foot in your mouth.  Remember: you aren’t interviewing – when you shadow, you’re just checking things out.  Any sane clinician you’re observing will understand that you probably don’t know much, and will likely remember a time when they were in the same boat.

“Success always comes when preparation meets opportunity.” -Henry Hartman

With Mr. Hartman’s sage words in mind, here are a few questions you can have ready that 1) may lead to good discussion about the PA field, 2) will help you learn about the person you’re following, and 3) won’t make you look like a dumbass.  NOTE: these aren’t medical questions.  You may learn some medicine when you shadow, but that’s not the purpose; you’re there to investigate the profession.

  • “How busy of a day are we expecting today?”  This helps gauge how busy the PA you’re shadowing may be, and it gives you a feeling for how today compares to the “average” day.  The “we” is also a nice way to imply that you’re in it together.
  • Where did you go to PA school?”  Invites them to talk about their training, and how it may be similar or different from yours.  If they went somewhere you may apply to, you might consider asking for a letter of recommendation at some time in the future (if your time with them goes well.  If it doesn’t, don’t ask!)
  • How long have you been working as a PA?”  Again, something it helps to know, and invites them to talk about themselves.
  • What do you like most about your work?”  Gives you things to look forward to…
  • “What about your work would you most like to change?”  Helps you see the other side, for a reality check.
  • “How much contact do you have with your supervising doc during the course of a typical day?” The answer to this one can vary.  Knowing how it works will help you understand the PA field.
  • How many patients do you see in an average day?  How does that compare with the physician(s) on staff? Another indicator of the lifestyle you may be signing up for, and how it may differ from that of an MD.
  • “How are patients assigned?”  This gets at how they determine which patients will see the PA, and which patients will see the physician.
  • “How long did it take you to feel like you knew what you were doing after you finished PA school?”  Don’t worry – this isn’t a pointed question.  The reality is, most clinicians don’t feel ready when they graduate, but with time, they do.

If you are shadowing in a primary care setting (pediatrics, internal medicine, family practice):

  • “How often do you do procedures?”  Procedures are in-the-office treatments, like suturing, removing toenails, lancing and draining wounds, etc.  Some clinics do many (particularly in “urgent care” clinics), and some do few if any.  Procedures are a contrast to medicine, where the clinician is mostly prescribing, and not doing a lot of hands-on work.
    • If they answer “Often” you can ask, “What are the most common ones?”
    • If they answer “Not often,” or “Pretty much never”  It’s okay to ask, “Do you like it that way, or do you ever wish there were more of that here?”

If you are shadowing in a specialty setting (dermatology, ophthalmology, etc):

  • “How does your daily work and lifestyle compare to that of other specialties?” You are basically asking what is unique about your specialty – how much they are on call, how many hours they work, how good the money is, etc.  They’ll either tell you what they love about it, or what drives them crazy about it.  Both directions are good conversation.

To read more about shadowing, click here