Subject Overview

What is it like to study medicine at University?
Medicine is a very challenging, enormously rewarding subject. One of the biggest challenges is the volume of material you will have to learn and understand which can be very daunting initially. Many students find the first term a particular challenge as they get used to a very new subject, lots of new terminology and a different way of being taught and of learning. Much of what you learn for medicine is not that difficult. Some subjects are, of course, more academically challenging than others but there is a lot of common sense and logic too.

Another factor that can be daunting is seemingly endless syllabus. Medicine changes almost on a daily basis with so many areas where we still have a lot to learn and discover. It is impossible to know it all. This can come as quite a shock to high achieving A level students, used to knowing nearly everything they have been taught! Being more in control of your own learning is also a new concept and this can take time to get used to.
If you are able to achieve the necessary grades at A Level , or equivalent, there is no reason why you will not be able to rise to this challenge.

How is medicine taught at University?
There are essentially two types of course structure for studying medicine and each University will follow one or the other. The more “traditional” course is known as “vertical”, such as that taught in Cambridge. Some more “modern” medical schools teach an “integrated” or “horizontal” course. What’s the difference?

Traditional/Vertical Course structure
In this format, medicine is separated into pre-clinical and clinical training.
Preclinical training lasts either two or three years depending on the University, and has some, but limited, exposure to patients or hospitals. It is much like studying any other University degree and will consist of lectures, practicals and tutorials in a range of subjects relevant to medicine. It is an opportunity to study the science of medicine in depth before you head on to the wards with your stethoscope! You will follow a typical undergraduate timetable with three defined terms and relatively long University holidays.
Clinical training typically lasts three years. Your training will now be hospital and practice based, when you start to apply your preclinical knowledge to patients and develop critical clinical skills. It is more like having a job than being a student. Your will rotate between specialties such as paediatrics, general practice, psychiatry etc.
There will be long days at times, some shift type patterns to your week and placements at different hospitals around the region. Holidays are much shorter too.

Why are some preclinical courses three years rather than four?
Some courses have a compulsory third year of preclinical study, as in Cambridge. Others may offer this as an option. These are often referred to as intercalated courses. The third year is a chance to study some subjects in more depth, undertake some research or study other areas outside the core medical syllabus such as philosophy. This third year usually allows undergraduates to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in addition to the preclinical medical qualification.

What subjects are taught in the preclinical course?
Typically the first year will cover anatomy, physiology and biochemistry. The second year introduces pathology, pharmacology and neuroscience. Some cell biology, sociology, ethics and endocrinology will also be covered at this stage.

Integrated/Horizontal Course structure
Integrated courses are those where basic medical sciences are taught concurrently with clinical studies. You will, for example, learn the anatomy, physiology, pharmacology etc. of the gastrointestinal tract at the same time as being on the wards and learning the clinical aspects alongside the gastroenterologist and surgeons. It is a systems-based approach with more patient contact in the early years.

Which system is best?
There is no answer to this. It is a matter of personal preference and choosing a structure that suits the way you learn. For more information:

What about exams?
There are a lot of exams during medical training, at the end of each year or spread out throughout the year depending on the course. You will have to satisfy the standards set by the General Medical Council in order to graduate from medical school and enter your foundation training. There will then be many more exams to come too. For more information on training after you leave University:

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