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What will I learn in a Doctor of Medicine (MD)?

Elliott DE

Interested in getting into a medical school? Find out what you will learn in a Doctor of Medicine degree, its typical pathway and more...

Medical school is a highly challenging and interesting experience, where students will be exposed to a wide range of intellectual, scholarly, and clinical learning opportunities. This article will address what might be regarded as a ‘typical’ medical school curriculum, and what medical students learn within, but it is best to note that some medical schools do modify their approach slightly from the broad format discussed here.

Firstly, there is usually some time allocated at the start of the medical degree for ‘pre-clinical’ learning, or in other words, the basic physiology and theoretical foundations of the situations and diseases students encounter in the clinical (i.e. hospital/clinic) setting. Typically, this type of learning occurs in the first two years, and students will gain the necessary background knowledge in biomedical sciences, communication, and clinical skills. This ensures that the knowledge and problem-solving abilities which underpin medical practice have a strong scientific foundation. Indeed, the first two years of medical school are a mixture of classroom and lab time. Students take classes in basic sciences, such as anatomy, biochemistry, microbiology, pathology and pharmacology. They also learn the basics of interviewing and examining a patient.

Medical schools approach this aspect of the course in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it might be similar to undergraduate education, where you ‘take’ courses (either required or elective) in these years, or all the aspects of the pre-clinical education will be completely integrated in one to four ‘courses’. For example, at Griffith University on the Gold Coast, students will study under four ‘themes’: Doctor and Knowledge (Biomedicine), Doctor and the Community (Public Policy), Doctor and Practice (Clinical Exams), Doctor and the Law (Legal aspects and Ethics). These themes recur every year, though with different content.

Examples of ‘typical’ subjects that may be addressed in the early years of medical school are as follows:

Gross Anatomy: Gross anatomy has two components - lectures and laboratory work. Lectures typically last for an hour, with a very brief overview of what students will need to look for in the laboratory/practical sessions, whilst lab work typically runs about four to five hours long, and will usually involve exploration of human cadavers. Here, the students learn the wonders of the human body from the cranial nerves, brachial plexus and mediastinum to the femur, humerus and orbicularis oculi muscle in the eye (and more!).

Histology: The study of cells in the human body, also consisting of lecture and lab components. Often, students will take histology and gross anatomy together, especially if the medical school is systems-based (i.e. students learn content in systems, such as a ‘Cardiology’ block for weeks 1-4, ‘Respiratory’, for weeks 5 – 8 and so forth).  

Pathology: Similar to histology, but studying these cells when things go wrong! Students look at histology slides of, for example, an infarcted heart (heart attack) and know by inspection that it is a damaged heart.

Biochemistry: This has a much smaller focus at medical school, as a basic understanding is assumed (and indeed, students are tested on biochemistry in the GAMSAT). Aspects of biochemistry may come up during medical school, but it is in much less detail than undergraduate biomedical courses, and only information that can be clinically applied will be discussed. Instead, human physiology and pathophysiology are the main focuses during medical school, which looks at system-wide processes of health and disease.

Following these early 1-2 years, medical school transitions to ‘clinical years’, where students are in hospitals and other clinical placements. Some universities will have students stay at one hospital, or a network of hospitals, or students may have to travel to both city- and rural-based health practices. In this latter option, clinical training is undertaken at large urban hospitals and smaller rural hospitals affording a balanced view of urban and rural health care and their differences. While practical clinical experience forms the basis for all learning in the latter two years of many medical school programs, it may be accompanied by a structured teaching program – or it might not! The balance between clerkship-based activities and scheduled sessions varies across medical schools. During this time, medical students often feel like a cross between a mindless grunt and a skilled apprentice – students will interact with patients and perform basic medical procedures along with any tasks the junior doctor doesn't want to do.

Students in the clinical stages of medical school may stay on different rotations for anywhere between one to three months, and will typically go through clinical experiences in surgery, internal medicine, community medicine, cardiology, paediatrics, anaesthetics and geriatric medicine. The diversity of experiences here can be very helpful for the medical student to have an insight as to what they might want to do in the future, as a diversity of experiences (which are usually good and bad!) are sampled. During this stage, there aren’t a lot of assignments, nor is there a lot of ongoing study required; rather, it is most similar to a full-time job, where students are at clinical placement during the day and learn on the job (though please note, it is certainly not paid!).

We hope that this helps elucidate what exactly occurs behind the walls of medical school! As you can see, a diverse number of experiences are apparent across medical schools, states, and students. Please be ensure to check the medical programs of each individual university for full information.

Elliot DE is a current Medical Doctor & Law Graduate. He is also a GAMSAT Humanities Tutor at GradReady GAMSAT Preparation Courses.