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Can You Study Medicine Online? (Virtual Medical School)

Can You Study Medicine Online? (Virtual Medical School)

Updated on: December 17, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

Every article is fact-checked by a medical professional. However, inaccuracies may still persist.

Despite more and more courses becoming available online, medical school to date has remained firmly a face-to-face course.

But, as technology progresses, can you now study medicine online?

There are currently no UK-recognised medical degrees that can be entirely studied online. Significant portions of medicine programs can be delivered virtually, but UK medical schools all include significant in-person teaching as part of their medicine courses.

Although you can’t become a doctor from the comfort of your own home quite yet, things do seem to be moving more and more in that direction every year.

In this article, I’m going to explore exactly what you can achieve learning medicine online, as well as what options you have for distance learning as a medical student.

Can You Study For A Medical Degree Online?

There are plenty of university degrees that can be studied online.

From an MBA in business analytics to a Bachelor of Arts to a Master’s in computer science.

So why not medicine?

Well, the biggest hurdle to any online medicine course is always going to be that learning to be a doctor is a highly practical undertaking.

Doctors have to know how to examine patients, take blood from them, catheterise them, cannulate them, relocate shoulders, ankles, and wrists along with a thousand other practical skills.

You just can’t really learn any of these things from a computer screen.

You have to have a patient in front of you and be shown, in person, by someone else.

A medical school model of a head

This is why I find it very hard to imagine that UK medical schools will ever move entirely online.

The ‘doctors’ graduating from these courses just wouldn’t have the skills necessary to practice medicine in the real world.

However, this isn’t all to say that a significant portion of the courses can’t be delivered virtually.

Medical school is traditionally split roughly down the middle with a pre-clinical/clinical split.

A medical student might spend the first two-and-a-half years learning theory in a lecture theatre and then the second two-and-a-half years of a 5-year degree putting this theory into action on the wards.

These first two-and-a-half years of learning the theory behind different diseases and treatments are easily translatable from face-to-face lessons to pre-recorded lessons.

Find out what the typical day for a medical student in each of these phases looks like here.

Becoming A Doctor Online

When I was at medical school, all our lectures were recorded so that you could play them back at a later date if you wanted to revisit something.

However, you were still expected to attend the lectures in person at the time they were delivered.

This all somewhat changed with the COVID pandemic.

Over lockdown, medical students were expected to remain quarantined in their rooms while being taught over video conferencing software.

“Three days into online lectures due to COVID and my god, the Zoom fatigue is real”

– Medical student on Reddit

While this proved that the concept was possible, as soon as in-person lectures became possible again every medical school moved back to the more traditional model.

As far as I’m aware, there aren’t any UK medical schools that will currently let you complete all your pre-clinical learning at distance.

Medical schools need to ensure you’re attending classes, keep you engaged with the content and give students the opportunities to talk with the professors if they don’t understand something.

Which is all just a whole lot easier when you’re in the same room.

Are There Any Free Online Medical Courses?

Although there aren’t full medical degrees that you can complete virtually, there are a whole host of medical courses that can be taken online.

They can offer a CV boost if you’re planning to apply to medical school or can be a way to explore specific interests you have within the field of medicine.

Imperial College London

Imperial College London has a whole host of different medicine courses, some of which can be taken entirely online and some of which are a blended mix of online and in-person learning.

They offer both paid qualifications, such as Master’s degrees, as well as shorter educational courses that are free to access.

For example, you can enrol in a Global Disease Masterclass or the Foundations of Public Health entirely for free.

Alternatively, you could complete a paid postgraduate diploma in surgical education entirely virtually, over the course of 3 years of part-time study.

The free courses could be a great way to gain perspective on healthcare issues that might very well come up at medicine interviews.

Harvard Medical School

Harvard University actually offers a range of online courses too.

These include in-person, blended, and online courses that are both free and paid.

Harvard University

Although there aren’t a huge number of free ones, they’re all of extremely high quality and come from an incredibly trusted source.

You can get instant access to courses about neuroscience, humanitarian medicine or anatomy.

Although it’s not quite the same as attending Harvard Medical School in person, these courses will still offer you high-yield learning on important topics.

Future Learn

Future Learn is an online repository for educational courses.

They operate using a subscription model, but you can access a lot of their courses entirely for free.

What makes Future Learn great is that they host courses from a tonne of incredibly respected institutions.

For example, you’ll find courses from King’s College London, the University of Leeds, the University of Cambridge, the University of York and even Health Education England on there.

They even have a course from the University of Glasgow all about applying to medical school taught by two senior lecturers at the university.

In terms of actually learning about medicine, there’s everything from caregiving for dementia patients to clinical communication for healthcare professionals.

Can You Self-Study Medicine?

In reality, all the information you need to become a doctor is available online for free.

I genuinely found Wikipedia to be incredibly helpful during medical school, but there are tonnes of other incredibly valuable resources such as the NICE clinical knowledge summaries, BMJ best practice guidelines or even the NHS website.

However, although all the raw information is out there and easily accessible, to actually work as a doctor you need to be registered with the General Medical Council.

The General Medical Council (or GMC) is who maintains the list of professionally registered doctors in the UK.

If you’re not on that list then you won’t be able to work as a doctor… and the only way to get on that list is to hold a recognised medical qualification.

So, unfortunately, there isn’t really a way to teach yourself everything you need to know at home and then emerge as a fully-qualified doctor.

The rules and regulations dictate that you have to enrol at an accredited medical school.

Final Thoughts

I attended medical school, in person, back in 2014.

I’ve got to admit, if I hadn’t had to physically attend my medical lectures at university, I highly doubt I’d have had the discipline to log on for those early morning classes!

So, for me at least, I think it was definitely a positive that I didn’t have distance learning as an option… but that may have just been me as a uni student.

As technology progresses and makes logging on to big video chats less painful, I think more and more distance learning will become an option for medical schools.

However, because of the practical skills needed to be a doctor, I just can’t see medicine ever becoming an entirely virtual affair.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.