One of the main reasons I put off going into medicine for so long was my fear of the hard sciences. Physics, more than any other, was the big one. I hated it back in high school.
The weird thing is though; you don’t need physics to be a doctor. Not in the everyday sense of the job for most working doctors anyway.
Where you might need it? Getting into med school. Especially if you’re going the pre-med route in the US.
But, as we’ll discuss in this article, there’s exemptions for that too.
How Does Physics Relate to Medicine?
Physics describes the behaviors of a lot of the phenomena we see in medicine. Things like blood flow, endocrine function and oxygen diffusion that happens in various organ systems. Using math as a model to demonstrate these actions, it has a lot of significance.
Other places it’s important in medicine is in imaging techniques. Things like CT’s, MRI’s and X-rays etc; each of these leans heavily on the rules and applications of physics to help diagnose patient illnesses and guide effective treatment plans.
But there’s more – here are some other areas physics meets medicine:
- Mechanics and motions of skeletal joints (knowing your anatomy helps here too)
- Understanding heat transfer (useful for surgical treatments)
- Nerve impulse mechanics
- Pressure and volume relationships
There are many examples!
How Do Doctors Use Physics?
This is the more appropriate question. We know physics describes a lot of what we see in medicine, but how do doctors (or med students etc) actually use it?
The quick answer? Most of the time, we don’t.
We know it’s there and we see that it can be applied. But, in most aspects of our job diagnosing illness, it’s not actually needed.
The hard math that the describe laws are processed by monitor readings that show us figures. These figures we recognise from memorization. The memorization – knowing which values show what – guide the diagnosis.
We don’t actually have to understand the underlying rules as to how we get there. Even though it helps!
The same can be said for radiologists, oncologists and other specialists whose fields draw more direct parallels with physics as a subject. Most of the time? They’re using machines that apply the laws to solve diagnostic or treatment-related puzzles.
Obviously patients may get more peace of mind believing their doctors are experts in physics (especially those performing minimal access surgery for example), but the truth is most doctors – and med students – knowledge is superficial at best.
Their day to day activities aren’t anywhere near that of say an engineer or nuclear physicist. For the most part, doctors don’t design or build.
Do Nurses Need Physics?
Nurses probably need physics even less than doctors. Often their role is more about care giving rather than diagnostic assessment.
Having a high school background in physics can make applicants to nursing courses more competitive (as can any hard science – chemistry, biology etc – background). But it’s not exactly necessary.
A more general answer is similar to that of doctors; a dependence on physics depends on the role. Military nurses dealing with trauma and expected to perform minor surgeries etc, could benefit a lot from a solid understanding of physics. Residential nurses, on the other hand, probably not.
Do You Take Physics in Medical School?
Going to an international med school in Europe I had to take physics in med school. It was a core part of the med school curriculum here in the first year (and biophysics too).
Judging by how med school works in other countries however, it seems that’s not a general rule. US med schools, for the most part, don’t include physics in their pre-clinical years of study. Nor do most UK, Australian or Indian schools either (based on what I’ve read).
So whether you have to take it or not depends on which medical university you go to – check the curriculum to be sure.
Where physics definitely integrates into all med school curricula though is in physiology. In this class you’ll have to familiarize yourself with common physics formulas to understand basic human functioning. This is also why I personally believe physiology is so hard (at least to someone who’s horrible at math).
You’ll also touch on physiology in radiology and oncology clinical rotations too. Granted you have those options.
Do You Need Physics to Get Into Med School?
One key thing to consider here; don’t confuse requirements for med school with something necessary for a specialty.
What this means is that yes, physics is often a requirement for med school. Even though it’s not really necessary in most roles as a doctor.
Here’s the circumstances you might need it:
- US pre-med applications (most school like to see one of year of physics classes and related lab work)
- MCAT exams (for US pre-med applications)
- NEET (India) and IMAT (Italy) pre-med exams
Usually though there’s not many physics questions on medical admissions exams.
You also don’t need it to get into most English language med schools in Europe (as I’ve already mentioned) or those in the UK (they prefer chemistry and biology A-levels).
Interestingly attitudes might be changing in the US too. Mount Sinai Med School, for example, accepts HuMed graduates into medicine without physics. They even did a study where they showed those students were no more likely to fail out than those with a core science (physics included) background either.
So there are always schools that don’t have specific requirements.
Can I Become A Doctor Without Physics?
I’ve already shown you can get into med school, graduate and become a doctor without even really needing physics.
The bigger question is; is it a good idea?
Probably for certain specialties; radiology, cardiology, oncology etc, it isn’t a good idea. Understanding physics in those areas of medicine is fundamental to the routine activities of the day to day job.
But I’d also suggest that a good understanding of physics is pretty essential to understanding both the causes of pathology and the mechanisms of treatment (pharmacological interactions etc) too.
So even though theoretically yes, you could become a doctor without physics, you might not be a particularly good or effective one.
Unless you really have your physiology down perhaps.
Another reason why understanding the principles is far better than memorization again (more on this in my article: how to study medicine more effectively).
I Don’t Understand Physics: How Do I Improve?
Acknowledging you don’t understand physics isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Read my story; I’m no expert in it either.
You can improve in the same way you would most studies:
- Identify good resources that explain the principles clearly and easily for you to understand
- Be patient and don’t compare your progress to anybody else’s
- Take it slow and be sure to revisit concepts and actively recall them
- Solve lots of problems from question banks, book exercises etc
- Visualize systems in your imagination (helps with the medical applications I talked about at the beginning)
As for some good resources, the two I always recommend for beginners are:
- Khan Academy Physics: Simple, well-explained, free and lots of practice questions integrated into the learning modules
- Crash Course Physics: Fun, broad overview of the major fundamentals in the typical YouTube Crash Course-style
There’s also the book Basics Physics: A Self-Teaching Guide. I haven’t used it myself but it’s got lots of rave reviews on Amazon from self-learners picking up physics for the first time.
Might be worth checking out…
Final Thoughts: Can I Be A Doctor If I’m Bad At Physics?
You can absolutely be a doctor if you’re bad at physics. I’m terrible myself and I’m finding a way. If the med school you’re planning on going to definitely requires it then keep your head down and keep working away – check out the resources I recommended too.
Otherwise you can relax in the knowledge it’s not that fundamental to the journey of becoming a doctor. It can help for sure. But so can bringing up your knowledge in physiology, anatomy and all other core topics of a MBBS syllabus too.
Image Credit – @lazycreekimages at Unsplash