Seeing Is Learning

Shadowing may be the best way to learn what it’s really like to work in a particular setting.

By Phil Hossler

Phil Hossler, ATC, is the Athletic Trainer at East Brunswick (NJ) High School, and a member of the NATA Hall of Fame.

Training & Conditioning, 11.2, March 2001,

Although recent NATA efforts to implement tougher educational standards for certifying athletic trainers have focused on the importance of classroom learning, there’s still no substitute for hands-on experience. This is particularly true for high school student athletic trainer aides, since they must decide whether to pursue athletic training as a career and, if so, choose a NATABOC-accredited college or university.

Fortunately, many high schools provide plenty of hands-on experience. In addition to spending time in the athletic training room and in the field, many student aides take part in “shadowing” programs. In some of the most common examples, students visit, observe, and interact with working professionals such as athletic trainers in various settings, physicians, physical therapists, nutritionists, massage therapists, and chiropractors. This provides students with invaluable experience of what it might be like to work in these settings or as an athletic trainer alongside these professionals.

What do you do if your school doesn’t have such a program, or if there’s a particular setting you’re curious about that has traditionally been overlooked? Simply set one up yourself. You can easily get the first-hand experience you seek by working with your career development office, your athletic trainer, or anyone at the school who may have some insight or connections to the setting.

The ideal route is through your athletic trainer—even if it’s in addition to other personnel at your school. This way, you may be able to establish a lasting program that others will be able to participate in. At the very least, he or she will be able to help you get the most out of your experience.

It starts by going to your athletic trainer and telling him or her that you’re interested in seeing what it’s like to work in a particular setting. Whatever your interests, chances are someone in your community would be happy to show you what his or her job entails on a day-to-day basis. To give you some idea of the range of possibilities that exists, some successful shadowing programs include such things as being able to view surgeries at a hospital; spend time in a diagnostic center that provides MRIs, CT scans, and x-rays; shadow athletic trainers who work wtih semi-pro and pro teams; observe how a fleet hospital is run at a local Navy ship yard; and tour a Naval PT clinic and the medical facility of an aircraft super carrier.

But there’s more to shadowing than simply following someone around while he or she works. There are some important guidelines that should be followed. Before doing any type of shadowing, it is important that you know what is expected and acceptable during your experience. The following are general guidelines that I use in conjunction with my local HealthSouth facility. These are primarily intended to assist shadowing leaders in getting started, but they can also give you some idea of the guidelines that are important for such a program.

Goals: to provide each student with a positive clinical experience, orient each student to the role of the clinician in the setting and in the total rehabilitation process, develop proper questioning techniques, and understand the various aspects of patient psychology.

Time Requirements: A minimum of eight hours total is recommended, with a minimum of two hours per visit.

Dress Code: Neat, professional attire is required (pants with blouses, shirts, or sweaters, or a dress/skirt; no jeans, sweatpants, sweatshirts, or t-shirts). Clean sneakers are acceptable. Hair longer than shoulder length must be tied back.

Patient Confidentiality: It should be decided beforehand whether a student will be allowed to see the contents of a patient’s folder. If allowed, the student cannot discuss any patient information with anyone, including the patient. The student should receive permission from whoever is in charge of the patient at the site prior to conversing with the patient. And, when conversing with the patient, do not ask “What is the matter with you?” Rather, ask your host the nature of the reason for the patient needing treatment.

Professional Conduct: Develop the ability to know when is a good time to speak to the people providing services. Write your questions down so that they can be addressed when time permits. Use all your senses—hear and see everything to get a feel for the profession. Ask well-informed questions, such as “How will ultrasound benefit the patient?” rather than “Why are you doing that?” Use good judgment. Remember, patients are paying for these services and may not appreciate a student asking questions.

Spending time reading about various healthcare professions, and even learning about them in class, is not enough. By actually experiencing the education, it will stay with you longer. And by visiting various settings first-hand, you will gain invaluable insight into whether it’s something you may want to pursue as a career.