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!
But do you need physics to be a doctor?
The simple answer is no you don’t. There are several med schools you can get into without having ever done a pre-req physics class. But not taking it definitely limits your options.
In this article, we’ll find out why. We’ll cover:
- Why (and when) you don’t need physics to get into med school
- If doctors even use physics in their day-to-day
- How you can improve your chances of getting into med school despite being bad at physics
Despite getting into med school without ever having taken a physics class, I’m standing testimony that it is possible. But it’s not without complications.
Ready to find out more? Let’s go.
When Do You Need Physics to Be A Doctor?
In the U.S. physics is usually a required pre-requisite class you’ll need to take in order to apply for med school. Although you don’t have to major in it, a years worth of class credit (and lab work) is generally enough to satisfy 90% of American med school admissions boards.
Here are other circumstances you’ll need it:
- MCAT exams
- UKCAT/BMAT (UK) pre-med exams
- NEET (India) pre-med exams
- IMAT (Italy) pre-med exams
It’s also looked upon favorably as an A-level by UK med schools too (but isn’t a necessity).
Typically, however, there aren’t that many physics-based questions on most medical school admissions exams. On the MCAT for instance, the proportion is less than 10% (after factoring in the total average of each test section). And it’s about similar for those others mentioned above.
Medical Schools That Don’t Require Physics
In America, there are only 3 med schools that don’t (explicitly) require physics:
- Medical University of South Carolina: “no prerequisite courses are required”
- Southern Illinois University School of Medicine: “does not require specific prerequisites”
- Baylor College of Medicine: no mention of physics
You also don’t need it to get into most English language med schools in Europe (I’m case in point).
Interestingly, the attitude toward physics might be changing in the U.S. admissions process.
They even did a study where they showed those students were no more likely to fail than those with science (physics included) backgrounds.
So there are several ways to become a doctor without taking physics.
Do You Take Physics in Medical School?
Physics isn’t a course on most pre-clinical American MBBS curriculums.
Going to an international med school in Europe though, I had to take physics. It made up one semester’s credit in the first (premed) year. Followed by biophysics.
Where physics might not be a stand-alone subject though, it’s certainly integrated into other med school courses.
Physiology leans heavily on it and you’ll have to understand common laws of physics to understand the functioning of various organ systems.
You’ll dive into a little physics in radiology and oncology in your clinical rotations too (more on this in a moment).
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 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, they don’t.
We know it’s there and we see that it can be applied. But, in most aspects of the job diagnosing illness, it’s not actually needed.
The hard math that describe laws are shown to us as figures. These figures are recognized from memorization. Knowing which values show what, guides the diagnosis.
It’s not necessary to always understand the underlying rules as to how to 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 that most doctors (and med students) only have a superficial understanding at best.
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). 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 who are expected to perform minor surgeries could benefit from a solid understanding of physics. Residential nurses, on the other hand, probably not.
Should 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 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 you could become a doctor without physics, you might not be a particularly good or effective one if your chosen specialty calls on it.
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!
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 and review concepts
- Solve lots of problems from question banks, book exercises etc.
- Visualize systems (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.
It’s got lots of rave reviews on Amazon from self-learners picking up physics for the first time.
Including many people taking the MCAT…
Final Thoughts: Can I Be A Doctor If I’m Bad At Physics?
You can be a doctor if you’re bad at physics but not taking (or failing to score well) in it can significantly decrease your options. Although there are several med schools that don’t ask for it as a prerequisite class, the vast majority (at least in the US) do.
So if the med school you’re planning on going to definitely requires it then keep your head down and keep working away.
Physics is definitely something you can work at and improve!
Born and raised in the UK, Will went into medicine late (31) after a career in journalism. He’s into football (soccer), learned Spanish after 5 years in Spain, and has had his work published all over the web. Read more.