By Margaret Harris
Should all prospective doctors have to pass a basic physics course as part of their pre-medical training?
I’m guessing that for most physicsworld.com readers, the answer to this question will be a resounding “yes”. Indeed, the idea that physics can be useful in a wide range of careers is a recurring theme in our Once a physicist column, where we profile people who originally studied physics, then went on to other fields.
Yet even though it makes sense for all medical students to be familiar with certain scientific concepts, it does not necessarily follow that this preparation has to take place before they get into medical school. That, at least, is the thinking behind the humanities and medicine programme at Mount Sinai Medical School in New York, the subject of a provocatively titled article – “Getting into med school without hard sciences” – that appeared in yesterday’s New York Times.
A note for non-US readers: in the US, medicine is a postgraduate course. Students who plan to go to medical school can earn first degrees in all sorts of subjects, including the arts and humanities. However, most medical schools do require applicants to take a selection of “pre-med” courses – including organic chemistry and, yes, introductory physics – alongside their other classes, to prepare them for the medical-school curriculum.
What makes Mount Sinai’s programme different is that it is open to students who didn’t take such courses as undergraduates. Instead, the so-called “HuMed” students complete short introductions to physics and organic chemistry at a summer “boot camp” before starting medical school in the autumn. It’s an approach that seems to work: a recent study (published in the peer-reviewed journal Academic Medicine) found that the HuMeds perform just as well in medical school as their traditionally prepared classmates.
I cringed at some of the attitudes on display in the article (particularly that of the HuMed student who said she “didn’t want to waste a class on physics” or chemistry as an undergraduate), but I have to admit that requiring would-be doctors to take a physics course often has more to do with “toughening them up” than it does with teaching them essential skills. And the study also showed that that HuMed students tend to select specialties such as general practice or psychology, where their lack of scientific preparation is perhaps less of an obstacle.
Still, the next time I need an X-ray, I’d prefer a doctor who knows a little physics.