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Everything You Want To Know About Being A Medical Scribe

Updated on August 19, 2015
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What exactly is a scribe?

I've now spent the better part of a year working for one of the more well-reputed scribing companies currently out in the medical community. In that time, I've come to fully grasp the extent of success the job can have in preparing an information-chasing student for medical school.

But first, what exactly is scribing? Well, there are several different job descriptions that I've heard over the last few months, but the most commonly accepted is that a scribe is the individual who's always following around a physician with a laptop and types out everything they do. From a very shallow standpoint, this is true; a scribe does follow a doctor around and they are trying to put as much information that they can into that little piece of technology they refer to as their life. By that, I mean a scribe's entire profession revolves around the use of a mobile computer.

But of course, there is so much more to it than that. If the hospitals just needed someone to type everything they heard, then anyone could garner themselves this position so long as they had a reasonable typing speed. But a scribe also needs to be able to understand the information being thrown about so that they can sift through it and categorize what it is they are seeing and hearing. They need to be able to discard extraneous information and insure that only the pertinent details of a patient's condition can make their way from the patient's and the physician's mouth to the words that finally appear on the chart-- and they need to be able to do this quickly. Scared? In a way, you should be. It can be hard at times. But I also have to say that most scribing companies do an observably decent job of training new scribes. Despite the learning curve, I was able to become a slick and efficient scribe with moderate time taken to practice and learn.

Another scope in which to view the profession is that a scribe is a form of legal shield for physicians. Because of the horrendous amount of time filling in charts can take, Doctors have often found ways to cut corners and flub details in their records in order to maximize their face-to-face time with patients. This, of course, can lead to some severely negative consequences if little Suzy Lou's father finds that the doctor failed to write why he prescribed a medication for his daughter that ultimately caused her a degree of harm. Luckily, the physician have been alleviating this pressure from their own shoulders and putting it on us computer geeks. Now, we have to be able to fill in those gaps that the doctors leave open. We have to sit in the room and observe the interaction so that we can document every reaction the patient has to let's say, a physical exam. That way, when the Mr. Lou comes knocking with his lawyer, the physician can point to their chart and show how little Suzy had symptom 'x' while in the ED, and that the prescribed medication was in fact appropriate. Frankly, as a result of this, the stress is often focused on getting as much information as possible. But of course, this isn't necessarily good, as writing extraneous details can cause slow-downs and ambiguity in a patient's treatment. Sometimes a patient will come in with several complaints, and even though a scribe may feel inclined to transfer all the words spewed from the patient's mouth into a notepad document, they need to know the primary reason the individual is in the emergency room and stick to it. Get the drift? You need to actually learn some sound medical knowledge to function as what I would call a 'physician's apprentice'.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of several reasons as to why scribing is the new steroid for boosting medical school applications. More and more admission committees are learning how beneficial an experience it can be for a future physician to have scribing down on their resume. Not only does is provide hours of clinical experience unrivaled by other pre-med occupations, but the students and applicants who have worked as scribes come into medical school knowing how to think like a doctor.

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How Does One Become A Scribe?

The process isn't too complex, and it also is relatively short in terms of necessary training time when compared to other emergency department professions. Really, the only requirements are that you attend a company-run and company-funded training program that usually lasts between one and two weeks, and that you have the technological skill set for the job (typing speed and baseline medical knowledge such as common terms and abbreviations). During this training period, the company you are applying for will essentially sit you down in a class-room style environment and teach you the necessary facts you'll need to memorize and use as a scribe. After that, they will feed you practice scenarios in which you will learn more about how to do your job with each successive exercise. At that point, the rest comes with practice.

But wait, you have to apply first right?

Yes, you will have to apply. This is usually done online, where an individual can find a link on any of the hiring companies' websites. The biggest qualities that they will look for in applicants are-- above all-- motivation to learn and become part of the medical community, and that you have ample availability to work as scribes often have the same schedules as some physicians (which includes occasional graveyard shifts). As a disclaimer, I will also add that even though they hound on availability, scribing companies have a notoriously good reputation for accommodating students who attend courses in addition to their scribe jobs. I can attest that this was something I found to be very beneficial for me personally.

Once you've sent in your application and have been accepted, you'll most likely receive an invitation to be interviewed. From what I've seen and heard, this is almost exclusively done over the phone or online regardless of the company you are applying to. They will ask you questions that largely reflect your motivation and availability, as I just explained. But they will also want to assure themselves that you understand what you are getting yourself into and that you aren't some sort of psychotic maniac. If you know you aren't, then you probably shouldn't stress over this. Once you're accepted and go to your training classes, you will most likely be moved into a real hospital to observe another scribe in action. Before you know it, that scribe will hand you the laptop, and it's all rainbows and fairly tales from there! Sort of...

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What Other Pro's and Cons Come With Being A Medical Scribe?

Pro's:

  • you will learn a fantastic amount of scholarly medical information
  • you will build personal and professional relationships with physicians
  • because of said relationships, you will eliminate any issues with networking and letters of recommendation.
  • you can observe hundreds if not thousands of hours of various physicians' different forms of treatment and bed-side manner.
  • you learn the common workings of an emergency room
  • you better understand your future career in medicine (especially if you want to work in the ED). There will no longer be any mystery after you've worked as a scribe.
  • you will learn to appreciate caffeine on a whole new level.
  • you will be able to impress your friends with your medical knowledge and typing speed (maybe).
  • your short term memory will improve exponentially. After woking for an adequate amount of time as a scribe, a physician can quickly rattle off ten different symptoms and you will have no problem recalling them all.
  • You will learn diagnosis techniques (this is actually super important).
  • you get paid
  • you will meet a great deal of like-minded people who are working towards the same goals you are.
  • You get to wear scrubs and look like a total boss.


Con's:

  • you don't get paid a lot. Chances are you'll be making minimum wage or something very close to it.
  • be prepared to give up some of your social weekends.
  • working in the ED can be stressful no matter what you do there. This will have an effect on you. But this can be good in just as many ways as it can be bad.
  • you will be coffee's B%#^$.
  • your sleep schedule may be a little wonky at times. But from what I've seen, most of the incoming scribes already have messed up sleep schedules for a variety of other good reasons.

And lastly, as a con, you will see people die, and you will see people fearing for their lives, and you will see people in excruciating pain. This will happen every day. I didn't want to put this as a bullet point because I don't want it to be associated with the other somewhat comical points. Because this is one of the more serious things I have to say about scribing. It's a job in the emergency department, and its one of the few places where the most miserable and sad people congregate. You'll need to be okay with that.

The way I see it though, this gives you an equally important opportunity to help these people acquire some form of relief, or at least put forth your strongest effort to. That's why I am a scribe, and why I think this job is the most important thing I can be doing right now.

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What About Other Pre-Med Jobs Like Being An EMT Or A CNA?

First off, I would love to be able to fully answer this question. And I understand that a lot of people are asking it, since these other "pre-medical" jobs have traditionally be the go-to's. But I haven't had the opportunity to work as all three and I need you to understand that my opinion is perhaps not the one you should solely base your opinion on as well. I strongly recommend you do some research and find out what each position has to offer and to do your own comparison. Also, I'm probably a little biased. I am a licensed EMT-B however, and have had at least a baseline of exposure in that realm.

I would say that being a medical scribe not only trumps these other options, but it does so in some very significant ways.

First, being an EMT can be great. Unlike a scribe, you get to have your hands on the patient and physically provide medical care. You do not, however, go into depth on why you are doing what you are doing, and instead you are following a somewhat cookie-cutter procedure to essentially package your patient for transport the ED (where the physicians and their scribes take over). Yes, occasionally an EMT will be part of some cool medically-related event, but even then it's usually the paramedics that have all the fun while you stand around and watch. Plus, another downside of being an EMT is that you usually don't get to fully grasp the conditions and injuries your patients have. You will rarely interact with x-ray imaging, barely touch on EKG's, and you probably won't see the most complex procedures like you do as a scribe in the ED with a full trauma team surrounding you. Being an EMT is to being a scribe as high school is to a university. It's just a different ballpark.

As for being a CNA, that's kind of the middle ground between being a scribe and an EMT. Admittedly, I haven't spent a lot of my time around CNA's, but I know that they get to engage in direct treatment like an EMT, but it's never anything high-caliber so to speak. You still, however, get to see the workings of the ED and you garner some important networking and medical skills. However scribing still takes the cake in my book. Again: Physician's apprentice. Keep that in mind. Only scribes get such great access to the people that make the entire operation run.

That being said, if you look at opinions by admissions offices at various medical schools, you will see that these occupations are usually held in equal regards. But, I would bet scribing is going to soon overtake the other for the title of best pre-medical student job. This is not only because of the reasons I have already stated, but because scribes are just now becoming a commonly utilized tool in the nation's ED's. You have to remember that using a scribe is a relatively new phenomenon for physicians that some would say has been brought on by the conversion to electronic medical records. Either way, you can't go wrong be choosing a scribe. I just don't see how it's possible.

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By The Way

Ill have you know that with reasonably good grades and an MCAT score of 37, I was accepted to medical school at the University of Washington just this last year. Above all else, I have to say that scribing has prepared me for my career in medicine; and that's exactly what I told the admissions committee. By all means, if you have any questions or comments about scribing, feel free to ask below in the comments!

Fellow Scribes: How has scribing influenced your medical career/ pursuit of admittance to medical school?

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    • autoimmune profile image

      autoimmune 2 years ago from United Kingdom

      interesting information about scribe and scribing.