Medical schools and other health-related graduate programs typically see clinically related experience as absolutely essential. There are two basic reasons for this.
Interacting with patients gives you a reality-based foundation for deciding if you really do want to take on the responsibility for the health, well-being and even the lives of other people.
The decisions you make in selecting these activities and the accounts you give (in your personal statement, your descriptions of your activities, and during interviews) provide admissions personnel with the evidence they require to assess your fit with their profession and your capacity to work with the patients they serve.
It is usually fine to get this sort of experience either as a volunteer or through a part-time job, and in most cases the key piece involves the chance to observe someone from your target health profession at work or the chance to interact directly with someone whose health has been compromised in some way.
Why only “usually” fine? Because some healthcare professions programs are more specific than others with respect to these requirements. Physician assistant programs, for example, frequently require hundreds or even thousands of hours of hands-on clinical experience with actual treatment or caregiving (for which you must be trained and licensed!).
Similarly, the requirement for formal shadowing, as opposed to more general clinical volunteer work, can vary from profession to profession. It can even vary across programs within the same profession. This is something you will need to check carefully. Pre-health advisors are happy to help with this.
Shadowing and patient interaction can seem (and in some cases are) very similar and they can and do overlap at times. However, the distinguishing element of good patient interaction is that it provides you with a chance to learn directly from someone who is undergoing treatment, living with illness or injury, or whose health has been somehow compromised.
This kind of experience can come from either volunteer work or paid employment.
Wherever you get your patient experience, it is very commonly seen as a critically important aspect of your preparation and it can make or break your application.
Patient interaction is most likely to be essential for those programs that also involve direct patient interaction in the actual practice of the profession. For example:
Master’s of public health programs do not require patient interaction because the work done by someone with an MPH alone does not involve direct clinical practice with patients.
Medical schools, however, see a substantive amount of patient interaction as every bit as important as academic excellence.
Finally, please remember: No health professions program wants you to engage in treatment or caregiving activities for which you are not appropriately trained and licensed, either here or abroad. In the vast majority of cases, observation, conversation, and thoughtful engagement are all that are needed. While physician assistant programs do typically require actual involvement in clinical practices, they absolutely expect you to have the training and credentials to do this. It is your responsibility to make sure you are making the right decisions.
Given the importance of this activity, it’s a good idea to talk to a pre-health advisor once you’ve begun to look at options.