What Do You Do in Medical School?

19 Jan, 2024 | Blog Articles, Medicine Articles

Should you be medically knowledgeable, an effective communicator, skilled at interacting with diverse individuals and willing to advocate for marginalised patients, before applying to Medical School? Not quite. Medical schools aim to train students fresh from sixth-form (high-school) into competent physicians. How you get into medical school depends on where you are in the world. In the UK, you can enter medical school after sixth-form. If you’re in North America, you need to complete a bachelor’s degree first. 

Pre-clinical Years of Medical School

The curriculum you would pursue is divided into pre-clinical and clinical stages. In the UK, your first three years are pre-clinical, which means primarily learning the theory underlying modern medicine, while your last three years are clinical, meaning more practical learning in hospitals. During the pre-clinical years, student cycle through the different organ systems of the human body, for example cardiology, which covers the heart and how blood is pumped through the body, and neurology, meaning how the brain mediates thinking and controls body movements.

Within the systems, you would learn about a variety of fields related to health. Biochemistry and molecular biology teaches you the cellular basis of human activity, helping you understand how genetic information (which encodes physical aspects of our identities) is passed between from parents to children. Another example is how human cells use genetic info to produce proteins (molecular labourers who do a variety of tasks in our body). Physiology helps you piece together how our organ systems accomplish crucial tasks, like circulating oxygen through our body, converting food into nutrients, or ridding our bodies harmful wastes. The physical sciences help you comprehend general physical laws that model key physiological functions like blood flow or nerve cell firing. Similarly, pathophysiology exposes you to the variety of ways that our body may malfunction, including due to potential genetic causes, physical damage, or long-term social factors. To appreciate the mechanisms for treatments of illnesses, you learn pharmacology, which covers both how the body processes drugs and how drugs work in our bodies. To appreciate social factors on health, you would learn epidemiology and public health, studying statistical findings and assessing large-scale illness trends in a population.

You would gain knowledge from different layers. Going back to the example of cardiology, you would learn about anything ranging from the molecular details, such as how single cells cause the heart to pump, to organ-level mechanisms, such as how blood flows through the body, to patient factors, such as the struggles of those living with heart disease, and even to social factors, such as lifestyle factors that lead to greater risks of cardiovascular diseases. This micro to macro approach, which many leading medical schools in the world have began to adopt, helps medical students consider the nuanced factors which relate to human health and illness.

Here’s another example. Another interesting unit would be neurology, where you would learn how single nerve cells transmit signals, how the brain coordinates muscle movements, how neurodegenerative diseases develop, and even the social factors influencing mental health. On the microcosm end of the spectrum, you would learn to interpret cutting-edge research papers, aiding the advancement of medicine. You will even have the chance to gain summer work experience in laboratories. This opportunity is helpful especially if you desire to pursue the path of a clinician-scientist. An example of an emerging field which you may contribute to is the gut-brain axis. Recent research has uncovered a variety of ways that our guts influence our brains. Your pre-clinical training would help you bridge the gap between modern research and clinical theory, an approach called evidence-based medicine. Examples of other crucial units include respiratory system (how humans breathe air), immune system (how our cells fight off diseases), and the renal system (how our kidneys process wastes).

Learning Approaches

The actual learning of all these fascinating topics is approached through a variety of ways. You would listen to lectures and read textbooks to gain general knowledge. To consolidate specific knowledge, you would discuss case studies of patients or research papers in small-group discussions. Laboratory experience or anatomical dissections of bodies would offer a practical component to the theoretical research you will read, to show you from where knowledge is derived.

Clinical Rotation Years in Medical School

After all the theoretical training, in the next few years, you have the opportunity to apply your theory to a practical setting by directly working with patients in a hospital under the guidance of physician supervisors. To ensure that students develop soft skills to aid patients, most curriculums emphasise active reflections. You will pass a few weeks in different sectors of hospitals to get a taste of which field you may wish to pursue later in residency (the stage of training between medical school and working as a physician). Key fields include pediatrics (children), oncology (cancer), surgery (operations on patients), and emergency care (urgent addressing of issues). You may even get a chance to travel to partnering institutions in different cities for some of these rotations. Teaching at this stage is primarily through mentorship by physicians. A key part of the clinical training is knowing how to interact with patients.

Modern medicine emphasises understanding the variety of factors, whether biological, psychological, or social, that influence a patient’s health. As a clinical student, you would learn to take a patient’s history, meaning asking patients guiding questions to rapidly assess their situations. Through experience you would develop skills to practice patient-centred care, meaning respecting the patient’s opinion in every stage of healing, from diagnosis to treatment. At the end of the clinical stage of medical school, you apply for a residency (essentially an internship) in whichever unit of medicine you wish to practice in. You also have the choice to pursue related careers in scientific research, health policy, or commerce, for instance.

Summer Opportunities During Medical School

During the summers you can also pursue related experiences to medicine. For instance, you may do research jobs in labs to see how basic research aids clinical treatment. Another possible experience is volunteering at hospitals in different countries through medical school exchange programs. This exchange would help you develop a global perspective on the advancement of medicine.

Key Points Summary:

  • Medical school is divided into pre-clinical (classroom setting) and clinical (hospital setting) training
  • You will learn about different organ systems that support human health and give insight into disease
  • Medical school gives you a firm foundation of knowledge to pursue a variety of career opportunities



By Lunan Zhao

Lunan is a medical student in Canada and a visiting English student at Mansfield College, Oxford. He is particularly interested in medical humanities, social medicine, public health, as well as knowledge translation, and is excited to be Scholastica Inspires’ Medical Sciences Editor! In his free time, he enjoys exploring the distinct ways that metaphors shape both our literary worlds and scientific imagination, and loves going for jogs.

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