What It’s Like to Shadow Doctors with Global Medical Brigades

Mar 20, 2024 9:14:30 AM | Brigader Buzz What It’s Like to Shadow Doctors with Global Medical Brigades

Global Medical Brigades offers shadowing experiences for students interested in learning more about international healthcare and connecting with patients.

Volunteers with Global Medical Brigades get the opportunity to gain shadowing experience in their intended field and make connections in medicine. They’re also exposed to a more holistic approach to public health and an international medical clinic experience.  

As with any volunteer or extracurricular activity, it’s important to understand what shadowing entails (and what it doesn’t) to know whether the experience is right for your goals.

A Week in the Life of a Medical Brigader

A day of shadowing on a brigade can vary somewhat by country, but most volunteer placements include a combination of doctor shadowing, mobile clinic support, and patient education.

That kind of experience is why we’re the largest student-led movement for global health. Learn more about Global Medical Brigades, including how to start a university club for pre-meds.

The first few days are typically spent getting situated in the partner country with a detailed discussion of the clinic's on-the-ground work. For the next three days, volunteers assist healthcare professionals in operating the clinic in six main areas:

  1. Triage: This is the first point of interaction with patients. Volunteers assist with taking patient histories and record vitals like temperature, height, and weight. They may also learn how to take a patient’s blood pressure and blood oxygen saturation levels.
  2. Doctor consultation: Volunteers shadow doctors as they meet with patients and work through symptoms to diagnose illness. It’s a good way to observe the importance of a positive rapport with patients. Patient caseloads vary by day.
  3. Antiparasite treatments: In communities where parasitic infections are common or contaminated water sources are a concern, all patients receive antiparasitic medications they wouldn’t access otherwise.
  4. Dentistry: Most brigades offer pre-med students the opportunity to shadow dentists. This may include extraction stations and preventative care, where patients receive information about oral hygiene. It’s an added layer of experience for volunteers.
  5. Optometry: Some Brigade clinics include an optometry station with basic eye exam equipment. Depending on the individual clinic setup, patients may be given prescriptions for corrective eyewear.
  6. Health education: This is the aspect of each brigade that has the potential to have the biggest long-term impact. Volunteers can lead health education programs on preventative care, hygiene, and location-specific disease prevention.
  7. Pharmacy: This is the last station for most patients. Volunteers arrange patient prescriptions and provide organizational support for the on-site pharmacist. Only the pharmacist is able to dispense actual medications.

Want to see more? Watch a clip of a volunteer in Panama describing his “day in life” of a Global Medical Brigades volunteer.

At the end of these rotations, volunteers spend a day on a cultural activity where they learn more about their partner community’s customs and traditions. Additionally, time is spent supporting data entry for the Global Brigades' Data Informatics System.

Data collection is a key component of the continued success of the brigades. This is how we assess our impact, identify needs, and track patient health trends. It also allows us to standardize what we do for a greater long-term impact.

Will Shadowing with Global Medical Brigades Strengthen My Applications?

Shadowing experiences with organizations like Global Medical Brigades can strengthen medical school applications in a few different ways. 

They demonstrate your altruism and passion for medicine, expose you to medical terminology, and allow you to learn about detailed record-keeping. You’ll work within aspects of healthcare you may not have otherwise, and witness immediate impacts of healthcare education.

That said, it’s important that you frame your experience with a brigade in a way that correctly defines that experience and highlights the benefits. Be specific about what you learned. If it sounds like voluntourism or like a mission trip, it may even harm your application.

And by very intentional design, Global Medical Brigades isn’t either of these. 

We work with communities to deliver healthcare services where they’re needed, focusing on sustainable change and addressing global health disparities with long-term, intentional efforts. We don’t simply send students on short-term trips to pad résumés!

Volunteer fundraising and travel experiences are small parts of the year-round healthcare presence Global Medical Brigades has established in each of our partner communities. We are committed to long-term development in alignment with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, ultimately empowering each of our partner communities to not need us at all!

For admissions committees, participating in a Brigade Chapter can add to diverse experiences that signal a dedication to improved health outcomes. 

Limitations of Shadowing as a Pre-Med

Shadowing as a pre-med can offer valuable insights into clinical settings, but your role is limited when it comes to hands-on patient care and patient procedures.

Global Medical Brigades allows volunteers to help with triage and vital signs and arrange medications under pharmacist supervision. You’ll have the opportunity to shadow doctors and dentists as they give full consultations. 

To boost leadership skills, another plus for medical school interviews, you’ll have the opportunity to facilitate health education workshops while on a brigade. 

These limitations are in place for the safety of patients and to follow legal and ethical restrictions. While shadowing can look a little different in each location, only licensed healthcare professionals are licensed to work directly with patients.

See a more detailed look at a pre-med shadowing experience in Panama.

How We Combat Voluntourism

Voluntourism is a combination of volunteering and tourism. While it can result in culturally sensitive experiences, programs can also fall short without intentionality and careful planning. At its worst, voluntourism can have negative environmental or economic impacts on communities or perpetuate white saviorism. 

Our efforts at Global Medical Brigades go beyond good intentions. Our programs are defined by sustainability and collaboration with our partner communities. 

We prepare volunteers for brigades by educating them about working with communities in culturally sensitive ways. We support language acquisition. We continuously monitor our progress. If you have any questions about what we do, we have answers.  

Our efforts are about long-term solutions and empowering the communities we work with rather than dependence on our organization.

Other Shadowing Experiences to Consider

Some medical schools require a minimum number of shadowing hours for your application. We pride ourselves on offering pre-med students one of the best experiences out there, but you can also find opportunities on the local level. Here are a few ideas:

  • Start with your school. Talk to your professors and advisors about available opportunities for shadowing and internships. Tap into the local alumni network.
  • Inquire with your local hospital systems. Some hospitals have affiliations with local medical schools or undergraduate programs.
  • Use personal connections. While you can’t use letters of recommendation from family members, you can use familial ties to connect with physicians they know. Talk to anyone you know in healthcare about good shadowing opportunities near you.
  • Talk to your doctor. You can’t shadow your own doctor, but you can ask your doctor for recommendations of local physicians who offer shadowing or internship experiences.

For pre-med students who can’t travel but want shadowing experience with our mobile clinics, consider a Medical TeleBrigade.

Get Started Today!

Seeking a spring break alternative that boosts your healthcare experience and allows you to see real, sustainable change in global health? Partner with us and join a Global Medical Brigade


Written By: Alexa