The Ultimate List of Classes You Take In Medical School (What Doctors Learn & Why)

It can be confusing, given how differently medicine is taught, to understand what it is that med students actually learn on their way to becoming doctors. Schools in different countries (and even those in the same country) like to do things differently. There’s no such thing as a standardized course.

This article takes a look at the types of classes all med students (irregardless of what country they study in or where they’re from) are expected to complete. Here you’ll learn:

  • The common subjects doctors study
  • How some programs (country/med school-specific) can be different
  • Why these subjects are important

If you’re a curious patient or future med student, this one is for you.

List Of Classes You Take In Medical School

As an international med student studying abroad, what I learn in medicine can seem, on the surface, to be in direct contrast with med students in the US, UK, Australia and everywhere else.

I’m on a six-year program compared to the standard 4-year U.S. path. While my program also includes a bunch of electives (Bulgarian language etc) that could be different to med schools in other places.

The differences between what I learn on the road to becoming a doctor and what others (those at other med schools in other places) learn though is only subtle. Medicine is medicine at the end of the day.

Preclinical Classes

The following list of classes are those med students generally learn outside of the hospital in a lecture or seminar (exercise) format. Most schools teach these in a dedicated campus away from a teaching hospital.

1. Anatomy: the study of the human body. Focusing on the major structures; vessels, nerves and muscles etc. Usually includes embryology (development of the fetus), histology (microscopic study of body tissue) and cytology (microscopic study of human body cells).

This is one of the first major subjects taught in med school. It often involves cadaver dissection too.

It’s also commonly taught alongside physiology.

Related: Do All Medical Students Have To Dissect A Cadaver?

2. Biochemistry: metabolic pathways, how the body breaks down macromolecules (food) and produces energy, proteins etc for essential functioning. Touches on nutrition, endocrinology and more.

Probably one of the hardest subjects in med school.

3. Biostatistics/Epidemiology: how disease is measured, prevented and controlled in populations. Leans heavily on graphical and data analysis and is usually taught in a way that’s relevant to the country of study.

4. Medical Ethics: healthcare-related ethical questions, the global role of a physician and the legal boundaries that doctors work in. Again usually taught in a way that’s specific to the laws of the country of study.

5. Immunology: how the body fights disease, learns to build antibodies to invasive pathogens and the factors that damage it. Sometimes not taught as a dedicated class but incorporated into other subjects like pathology, microbiology etc.

6. Microbiology: the study of the threats to the human body posed by common bacteria, viruses and fungi. Ways of testing for specific pathogens and how to contain and treat the diseases they cause.

7. Physiology: how organ systems function and how the body functions as a whole. Looks at what happens to the body when values and parameters change. Often taught alongside anatomy and sometimes explored further in pathophysiology.

Related: The Best Way to Study Pathophysiology (The Ultimate Guide)

8. Pathology: the signs and symptoms of common disease. How to differentiate them via observation and testing.

9. Psychology: study of the human mind and its functions. Looks at behavior patterns and related diseases.

10. Pharmacology: drug treatments and their methods of action in the body. Studies the main characteristics between pharmaceutical classifications and the appopriate methods of dosage.

Depending on the medical school curriculum, these subjects can sometimes be taught across a number of years or only for a single semester. To learn more about the differences between med school curriculums check out; Medical School Curriculum Types (What’s The Best?).

Clinical Rotations/Clerkships

After the preclinical years of med school, med students usually make the step up to hospital-based learning. This is where they’ll rotate around different areas of medicine, learning how medical specialisms work. In the U.S. this occurs during the 3rd and 4th years of med school.

These are the subjects most med students cover:

  • Anesthesiology: pain relief during surgical operations
  • Dermatology: diseases relating to skin, hair and nails
  • Emergency Medicine: accident and emergencies or unscheduled patient care
  • Family Medicine: healthcare for people of all ages (general practicioner (GP))
  • Obstetrics and Gynecology: care during pregnancy and diseases related to female reproductivity
  • Opthalmology: diseases related to the eye
  • Psychiatry/Neurology: diseases related to the brain and learning or behavioural disorders
  • Pediatrics: healthcare for children and young adults
  • Radiology: imaging techniques for diagnosing disease (X-ray, CT, MRI etc)
  • Surgery: operative procedures designed to treat disease or illness
  • Urology: diseases related to the urinary tract or sex organs

Learning these subjects is heavily dependent on observation rather than lecture-based learning. But some schools will still teach in that format, depending on how they’re structured.

Pre-clinical and clerkship subjects make up the standard 4-year medical degree. As you can see the course load is both heavy and extensive. It also helps to explain the high cost involved in training doctors (when you factor in department staff costs, technical instruction etc).

5 and 6-Year Medicine Programs

What isn’t mentioned on this list are some of the extra subject covered by longer medical degrees; those that are 5 or 6 years in length.

Typically these courses have some element of foundational teaching; the types of subjects you’d expect to see as prerequisites for U.S. medical degrees.

Common subjects on these courses that precede preclinical ones include:

  1. Biology
  2. Chemistry
  3. Physics

While 6-year courses, like some of those in Eastern European med schools, have an “internship year” at the end. This is an extra unpaid year of study that repeats certain rotations with an intention to focus on more procedural-based techniques.

Electives

Some medical programs ask that students get a set number of “credits” to graduate. This involves taking extra classes on top of the core curriculum.

These are very school-dependent and in no-way typical. To give you an idea of what could be included though, here’s a list offered by my med school (Medical University Varna):

  1. Neurobiology
  2. First Aid
  3. Molecular Biology
  4. Tropical Medicine
  5. Abdominal Ultrasound in Gastroenterology
  6. Clinical Haematology

Summary

Despite the many different ways of teaching medicine, the subjects that help make it up are fairly standard across the board. Hopefully the list above helps explain the kind of educational training doctors get.

Image Credit – @jmeyer1220 at Unsplash