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What Is an Observership?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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An observership occurs in medical school, where international medical students will observe the American medical system in action. During observership, students observe and participate in clinical activities with the objective of both understanding the American medical system and gaining practical experience working within it. Such programs also encourage strong relationships between the two institutions involved in the observership as well as between the students of each educational institution. The definition of observer refers to an international medical student who seeks to gain proficiency and expertise in his or her chosen specialty. Observers are usually assigned a faculty member as a mentor during the program to ensure they gain the skills intended.

In order to participate in an observership, the international student will need to have an excellent command of the English language. Contact with patients is usually not allowed, though contact with colleagues and faculty will happen regularly to gain practical experience regarding cases. As well, the observer will usually need to handle his or her own immigration visas in order to participate. Resumes must be presented to the hosting institutions, along with intended goals articulated, in order to facilitate the assignment of a mentor. Depending on the institution, there may be other important requirements as well.

Certification is usually provided at the end of the observership, annotating the time spent in the program. Lengths of such programs can vary, but usually last anywhere from four to eight weeks. Participation usually can occur in a number of different specialties depending on what the hosting institution offers. Common specialties include dermatology, emergency medicine, psychiatry and surgery. Sometimes a rotation may last longer, depending on the objectives of the observer, but such situations will usually require pre-approval.

Costs are also associated with an observership and vary considerably between hosting institutions. Charges are usually levied for all related clinical, educational and administrative expenses for the program. These will include covering the mentor assigned, time for reviewing cases, access to required library, and research facilities and participation in any lectures or conferences. Housing, meals and living expenses are usually up to the observer or the sending institution to arrange.

Regulations regarding observerships do vary among jurisdictions. Therefore, all programs need to have appropriate permission from hospitals and attending physicians if outside university medical facilities, while adhering to proper regulations. Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy extends to observerships, and observers will usually need to sign an agreement regarding the fact.

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