Medical student observes as a nurse cares for a patient in the hospital.

Em Battle '25 (far right) observes as Ashley Anderson, R.N., cares for a patient at the University of Vermont Medical Center. (photo: Andy Duback)

Medical Students Shadow Nurses to Build Communication Skills

by Janet Essman Franz

In the neurology unit at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Class of 2025 medical student Ana Homick listened attentively as Amy Winkler, R.N., answered a patient’s questions about their pending discharge. Homick noticed how Winkler carefully chose words to mollify the patient’s anxiety as she explained lab results and provided instructions for upcoming medical appointments.

“It was interesting to watch her expertly navigate talking with someone who didn’t fully understand the situation, helping her understand it better,” Homick said. “I’m interested to learn about having these difficult conversations.”

Homick is among the Class of 2025 medical students participating in nurse-shadowing, which takes place during the advocacy module in the Professionalism, Communication and Reflection (PCR) course. PCR aims to cultivate the habit of communicating with peers and colleagues about difficult subjects, said course director Stephen Berns, M.D., associate professor and director of education for palliative medicine. For future doctors like Homick, shadowing a nurse provides an opportunity to gain insight on how nurses advocate for their patients in a busy clinical environment.

“The students are able to glimpse into the nursing role, thought process and intervention point and recognize that it is an active, intelligent and informed perspective,” said Winkler. “In my observation, having mutual respect and open communication can make a significant impact on patient care and outcomes.”

While shadowing Mark Kucharek, R.N., Arif Ashan ’25, observed the humanistic aspects of being a clinician – connecting with patients, building relationships and practicing empathy.

“I liked hearing the stories of the patients Mark is working with. It revealed a lot of the unique challenges in patient care,” Ahsan said. “One patient was talking to us about things that weren’t actually happening. We had to interpret what he was talking about and reassure him that he is safe.”

Having opportunities to work with authentic patients in a hospital was one of the features that drew Em Battle ’25 to the Larner College of Medicine: “Interacting with patients, being in a live setting is super valuable. It takes us out of our routine of just studying all the time and puts us in a setting where we are reminded why we are doing this,” said Battle, who shadowed Ashley Anderson, R.N., on Miller 3, Specialty Surgery.

After the shadowing session, students are asked to reflect on how nurses interact with the physicians and think for themselves how they as physicians will partner with nurses in the future. For Battle, the experience illuminated the importance of collaborative, patient-centered care.

“The nurses know the patients best. They tell us about their experiences, and it’s humbling, because it reminds us how little we know,” Battle said. “Everyone has their own unique responsibilities, but we’re a team.”

Collage of three photos showing medical students observing nurses working with patients in the hospital

Pictured above, left to right: Arif Ashan '25 observes nurses Mark Kucharek, R.N. (center) and Lisa Bergman, R.N., working in the neurology unit at UVM Medical Center; Ana Homick '25 listens as Amy Winkler, R.N., talks to a patient; Alex Poniz '25 reads a digital thermometer while Danielle Shufelt, R.N., looks on. (photos: Andy Duback)