Shadowing a doctor: A student’s first day of medical school leaves a lasting impact

Dr. Maria Alexiadis, head of family practice for NSHA's Central Zone, welcomed first-year Dalhousie University med student Lily Barton on Shadow A Doctor Day in Halifax (Deborah Purvis, NSHA).
Dr. Maria Alexiadis, head of family practice for NSHA's Central Zone, welcomed first-year Dalhousie University med student Lily Barton on Shadow A Doctor Day in Halifax (Deborah Purvis, NSHA).

A student’s first day of medical school is a milestone on their journey to becoming a health professional – and one that can leave a lasting impact that may influence their choice in practice specialization later on when selecting a residency or further training.

Over 80 physicians participate each year in the Shadow A Doctor Day in the Halifax area, where first-year medical students are starting their studies at Dalhousie University.

“This opportunity is a student’s first formal exposure to the practice of medicine,” said Dr. Maria Alexiadis.

“There haven’t been as many family doctors participating in the past few years, and that was concerning to me,” she said. ‘It’s been shown that early exposure to family medicine results in a higher chance that (students) will choose it as a specialty when in school.”

In addition to practising family medicine, Dr. Alexiadis is a physician leader with Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA), as the head of family practice in Central Zone.

Working in partnership with the medical school, she reached out to family physicians in the greater Halifax area to see if they would be willing to participate in the shadowing program.

“In speaking with my colleagues, I would ask them to think about their first day and how they felt, and what would have made it easier for them to start their training. After sending out an email, I got a quick response from (doctors) saying they would be willing to participate. We had about 48 doctors this year in community practice who agreed to take on a medical student for their first day.”

Dr. Alexiadis also participated in the program, and was shadowed by Lily Barton on her first day of medical school last month.

“I was fortunate to have a student. It was quite exciting for me since it brought back memories of when I started school; my optimism and hopes for what I wanted medicine to be. I (was) able to share with her how I felt medicine opened many doors for me, (providing) professional satisfaction, and also taught me to learn how to create work-life balance.”

Barton joined Dr. Alexiadis at the Abbie J. Lane Memorial Building on the Halifax Infirmary site of the QEII Health Sciences Centre, where she has a part-time psychiatry practice in the early psychosis program.

Barton, who worked previously as a critical care nurse in the intensive care unit at the Halifax Infirmary, was interested in furthering her education in the health care field and felt that studying to become a doctor would be a good fit.
“I was looking for something where there was flexibility in the profession, and where I could make an impact,” said Barton. “I already knew that I enjoyed health care, overall it is a good fit for me, and that (becoming a doctor) would give me a lot of opportunities in the future.”

“Having already worked in health care,” she said “I’m trying to be open to all opportunities. My background is in critical care, so I’m interested in emergency medicine, anesthesiology, as well as being open to family practice.”

Barton shared about what it was like shadowing Dr. Alexiadis.

“The first day shadow experience is really an important one, (as) it gives students an opportunity to witness first-hand all that a physician does, since not everyone knows what it entails.

I hadn’t worked in (the mental health) area, so it certainly exposes you to all the different roles that a physician plays in the health system; (it) opened my eyes to future possibilities.”

“As a learner, I was there to observe,” Barton said. “The school had provided us with questions that we should look out for, such as what role does the physician play in terms of a leader, professional, navigator, health care provider, and collaborator. These prompts also helped with (understanding) work-life balance, how they manage their life, and how their practice works for them.”

Dr. Alexiadis’s patients were also receptive to having a student sit in on their appointments.

“It was a privilege that patients are receptive to having learners in their environment, as part of the intimate physician-patient relationship,” Barton said.

“I’m used to having learners in my practice,” said Dr. Alexiadis. “People are very generous, (and) many patients are willing to have learners participate in their appointments.

Students sit and listen and get some interesting points of view from my patients. From that experience, (they) not only learn about mental health issues, but also look at other psycho-social issues of someone trying to recover. That is an essential element of being a doctor, treating illness and facilitate recovery – both physical and functional (health).”

Thinking forward to next year, Dr. Alexiadis would like to see even more family doctors have first year medical students shadow them in their practice.

“Hopefully next year we will have even more family doctors willing to participate. A big thank you to everyone who did, and gained as much enjoyment as I did from participating.

“I recognize that they are volunteering their time, and that it goes to show we got into medicine for all the right reasons, to help those who are going to take over for us, and be their mentors. In addition to the shadowing program, there are a lot more options for doctors to participate; I encourage those interested to contact Dalhousie’s medical school.”

Barton also enjoyed the shadowing experience on her first day of medical school.

“It was really great for those doctors to be so welcoming and receptive to having students on their first day, and to be excited to share their experiences with us; that definitely leaves a lasting impact on me.”