Virtual Shadowing: Helping Students Prepare for PA School Applications During COVID-19

The pandemic has created opportunities for innovation, and to explore some of them, PAEA is writing a series of three articles about admissions in the time of COVID-19. In this first article, we discuss highlighting a possible way for pre-PA students to gain the shadowing experience they need to fulfill part of their admissions requirements. (Note: Pre-PA students who are considering participating in virtual shadowing should check with the programs to which they are applying to ensure they will accept this type of experience.)

Archana Patel, MSPAS, PA-C, works full-time at Queen’s Island Urgent Care in Honolulu, Hawaii, and also provides pre-PA student mentorship. Throughout the pandemic, she has offered weekly virtual shadowing sessions via Zoom, featuring a range of practitioners from a variety of specialties. We sat down with her to understand more about how this works, and how it can help potential PA students gain health care experiences that have been hard to come by during the pandemic.

How is a virtual shadowing session different from an in-person shadowing session?

Archana: Virtual shadowing opportunities are conducted via Zoom with a maximum of 100 students per session. What started out as a way to help students continue their learning about the PA profession during COVID-19 has grown into something that I plan to continue after COVID passes. Due to HIPAA, there are restrictions that prevent students from shadowing on Zoom with actual clinic patients. Therefore, I sought an alternative that would allow for continuity of learning using a case study and lecture model of teaching. Each week, a PA from a different specialty is brought on as a “guest lecturer.” They go over what a day in their life is like as a PA and the most common conditions seen from initial complaint to workup to treatment. Additionally, they present a specific patient case(s) that they have encountered. Students are then encouraged to ask questions to make it an engaging experience for them and, often, they are provided with contact information for that particular PA so that any further questions may be asked to enhance learning.

The group of students is usually a mix of pre-PA and PA students as well as students who may be considering becoming a PA. Current PA students benefit from these sessions by learning about the various specialties they are able to practice in over the course of their careers, and can use these sessions to make connections or guide their clinical rotation schedule. We are also spreading awareness of the PA profession to students who may be deciding between NP, PA, and MD, and are unsure of the role of the PA. Education and awareness is key. Additionally, at the end of each virtual shadowing session, I do a general Q&A for anything related to pre-PA academics, the PA admissions process, and being a practicing PA.

What are the successes and challenges you’ve experienced by conducting shadowing sessions virtually?

Archana: The greatest challenge with virtual shadowing would be the loss of in-person interaction that students could benefit from. Being able to physically see a provider conduct a physical exam to determine a work-up and treatment plan has been replaced by describing physical findings that would be consistent with a specific diagnosis. However, students are able to visualize the physical exam, to an extent, through shared photos and/or videos. There is still some debate as to whether or not programs will accept virtual shadowing opportunities, and this poses a potential challenge as well, as students are currently experiencing difficulty finding in-person shadowing opportunities due to COVID-19.

Successes of virtual shadowing include exposure to various specialties that students may not have access to in person, such as international medicine, surgical oncology, and OB/GYN, along with the opportunity to learn from each other’s questions via group chat in Zoom. Furthermore, a higher volume of students can learn all at once, whereas these large groups would not be feasible in an in-person clinical setting.

What tips do you have for pre-PAs who might be doing virtual shadowing?

Archana: Ask questions, demonstrate professionalism, engage in conversation with your peers, and offer feedback. Medicine is an ever-changing field and with COVID-19, the need for virtual continuity of learning is important. Use these virtual shadowing opportunities to gain exposure to specialties that may peak your own interests so that you can pursue in-person shadowing of a PA in that particular field when the world is back to normal and shadow students are welcomed back.

What tips do you have for PAs who might attempt virtual shadowing sessions in order to make them more beneficial for pre-PAs?

Archana: My advice would be to provide students with as much exposure to various specialties as possible. PAs are versatile and through these virtual shadowing sessions, I’ve realized how little students are exposed to specialties outside of primary care, ER, and surgery. Presenters may be given an outline of what to cover, expect, etc., so that presentations can be streamlined, if preferred. Try to make it as tangible as possible for the students in the absence of a physical shadowing experience. I’ve used PowerPoints and videos in the past!

Thank you, Archana, for sharing your work with PAEA members! Stay tuned for the next article in the series, which will be focused on virtual program interviews.