A key part of your medical school application is work experience. In some places this can be very hard to get, so you should make the most of the opportunity you have been given. In general, medical schools do not require a huge breadth of work experience. Any work experience related to the medical field is useful and will gain credit, as they realise that it can be very difficult for some of you to get the work experience in the first place. However, they don't just want to know what you did;
they want to know what you got out if it.
How do I get work experience?
Well, in short, ask for it. All hospitals will have somebody that co-ordinates work experience students. If you can't find this particular person, I would suggest giving the Human Resources department a ring and seeing if they can direct you to the right person.
If you are looking to get some experience at a care home, then have a word with the manager and see if they will let you volunteer over there.
The reality is that you will have to be proactive in order to get work experience. Even if you know people that work in a hospital, each one has their own system about who can do work experience, and I wouldn't recommend just turning up without having gone through the proper process.
What experience should I aim to get?
In my opinion, the most important work experience is in a hospital ward. If you make good use of your work experience and are lucky enough to get a varied schedule, then you will see almost everything. Many patients in hospital wards are elderly and you will get to talk to them and discover more about the challenges that they face, as well as the issues to the NHS of an ageing population. In a hospital ward, you will be able to shadow people from almost every profession in healthcare, including junior doctors, consultants, nurses, managers, nutritionists and porters, and how they all work together. They really show you how important each role is in ensuring that good, effective patient care is delivered in the NHS every day, and provide a good snapshot of the healthcare system in Britain.
Other work experience will be of varying interest depending on which aspects of healthcare you are particularly interested in.
Work experience at a GP surgery will show you how the majority of healthcare is delivered - in the community. Now that many GPs are part of a clinical commissioning group, you could get to see how they allocate funding and treatment, which can allow you to see how decisions on what treatments to fund are made.
Doing work experience at a care home will help you empathise more with the challenges that come with old age and help you to appreciate the difficulty that comes with caring for them.
Shadowing a surgeon in theatres will help you see medicine in a different context, and how the skills required for a surgeon are different to those required from physicians and general practitioners.
All of these work experiences will help you gain some insight into the NHS and how it works, and this is expected of prospective medical students, most of which will be working in the NHS as a doctor in the future.
I do understand that some people will not easily be able to obtain work experience in a medical environment. In this case, a pharmacy will probably be a good place to get some experience. Pharmacists play a role in the healthcare system, including offering medical advice for basic conditions and dispensing drugs, and this work experience will help you see one aspect of the NHS.
How should I talk about my work experience?
I would not recommend listing various procedures you saw at work experience unless they really interest you. You will be grilled about it at interview and you will need some in-depth knowledge about the particular disease/procedure you observed. And quite frankly, the medical schools don't care unless it was vital in your decision to do Medicine in the first place. Reflection of what you learned during work experiences is important to get across in the personal statement, because it shows that you were very interested during your experiences.
If you have work experience in a non-medical environment, you can still make it count. If you are in this case, then I would say to link any skills you have acquired to their importance in a job as a doctor. Although many other applicants will have work experience in a medical environment, so not having medical work experience will probably put you at a slight disadvantage. I would strongly advise some sort of work experience in a healthcare setting, even if it means sending applications to over 50 places. In fact, when you finally get some work experience, you will feel really lucky to get the opportunity to shadow in a healthcare environment.
Remember that during work experience, you need to be actively involved. By taking such an interest, you will get much more out of it than if you simply shadow without asking insightful questions. This is important, especially at the interview stage as many medical schools want to explore your work experience further, and find out what you learned from the experience and how it has helped you. They may even ask you about specific details or patients that you encountered during your work experience. After all, the point of work experience is to help you decide whether you really want to become a medic, and if you haven't been engaging fully at work experience then you probably aren't motivated enough!