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How Do Doctors Remember Everything? (The Simple Truth)

How Do Doctors Remember Everything? (The Simple Truth)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

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

Doctors have to retain a huge amount of knowledge in order to effectively diagnose and treat their patients. They need to know about human anatomy, drug doses, the natural history of diseases… So, how on earth do they manage to remember everything?

Doctors remember everything as a result of continuous study and development, repeated practice and years of experience. Doctors must partake in continuous professional development in order to stay abreast of the latest medical advances as well as to refresh themselves on rarer topics of practice.

There really is no magic bullet to keeping all that medical knowledge in your head. (But if there is then please tell me!)

My learning by no means stopped when I left medical school. If anything, it actually accelerated.

I honestly think I’ve learnt more in the last couple of years of working as a doctor than I did each year at medical school. That’s due to my personal study but also the incredible impact of being able to link theory to experience.

In this article, I’m going to explore the different aspects of memorisation and learning that both doctors and medical students have to struggle with in order to stay clinically competent.

Do Doctors Forget What They Learn At Medical School?

A full career in medicine can mean that at retirement age, it could have been over 40 years since a doctor graduated from medical school.

But even if it’s only been 5-10 years, would a doctor forget what they learnt at medical school if they’re not using it in their day-to-day?

Doctors do forget a significant portion of what they learn at medical school. This is because medical school teaches students a lot of the scientific groundwork that’s needed to understand more complicated topics. However, these specifics are often relatively irrelevant to clinical practice.

I remember learning at medical school the height, in nanometers, between one turn of DNA and the next. I can’t say I’ve ever come close to using that information in my clinical practice but I do still remember it to be approximately 3.4nm.

Now that one fact is definitely the exception to the rule. I know there’s absolutely tonnes of stuff that I would have crammed for a medical school exam that’s long fallen out of my short-term memory.

The simple truth is that if you don’t use it, you definitely lose it.

Although doctors will forget a lot of what they learnt at medical school, they’ll also gain a far deeper knowledge regarding the clinical aspects of the field.

Medical students studying in the university library

At medical school, in many ways you’re only learning how to pass exams. You learn facts that you know examiners love to test and you learn how to examine body parts in a way that you know will tick all the boxes on an examiner’s scoresheet.

When you get to actually working as a doctor, the important stuff is highlighted to you day in day out by the patients you’re actually seeing and the less important stuff somewhat falls by the wayside.

But because you are using some aspects of the curriculum so frequently, such as using a stethoscope for example, you greatly increase your experience and expertise in those niches compared to when you were a student.

How Do Medical Students Remember Everything?

To be able to take a student fresh out of school to being a fully qualified doctor, medical school is always going to involve a pretty massive information download.

So, over five years of intensive lectures, seminars and clinical placements, how do medical students remember everything?

Medical students remember everything they learn at medical school through hours of diligent study and repetition. In order to synthesise the huge amounts of information being delivered to them, medical students have to spend a much larger proportion of time self-studying than they spend in lectures.

Again, as much as I’d like there to be some secret method that would let medical students remember everything that was ever taught to them, there isn’t.

In the run-up to exams when I was at university, I’d often be waiting outside the library for it to open in the morning and still working when it shut in the evening.

Unfortunately, there isn’t any getting round the time and effort you have to put in as a medical student to learn the content.

There are however some things you can do to make it easier.

In my year at university, everyone was pretty clued up on their studying methods and a lot of people championed ‘active recall’ techniques rather than more ‘passive’ learning styles.

Active recall is things like:

  • Flashcards
  • Testing your friends
  • Mini quizzes

Whereas more passive learning is things like:

  • Watching lecture replays
  • Reading textbooks
  • Making notes

Data has shown that active recall is a far more effective way of learning than the more passive techniques. So, we as a peer group would often make flashcards of topics we’d just covered, design mini-tests for each other and generally get together to talk over content and test each other.

This undoubtedly helped us to stay on top of the landslide of information that was thrown at us each week as well as remember what we’d been taught up to that point.

Do You Have To Have A Good Memory To Be A Doctor?

Because of all the different fields of knowledge doctors have to draw from to successfully treat their patients, how important is it that a doctor has a good memory?

You do need to have a good memory in order to be a doctor. This is because of the large amounts of information regarding physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, biochemistry, microbiology and disease a doctor must remember in order to effectively do their job.

Medicine is an absolutely vast field and no one is ever going to know everything about everything.

However, to be a good doctor, you do need to have a bit of knowledge about most things- even it’s only a very superficial understanding.

For example, a doctor might need to be able to recognise when a patient is developing a rare respiratory condition. They don’t actually need to know the specifics of how to treat it, or even what the treatment is, but they need to have enough knowledge to be able to recognise it so that they can get the necessary expert help from a respiratory physician.

In the modern world, it is entirely possible to look up whatever you want on the internet.

Not only is nearly all of our collective medical knowledge available on the internet, but you could argue that the majority of human knowledge is searchable.

However, despite this, as a doctor you still need to know what you’re looking for and why you’re looking for it. You also need to know what to do with that information once you’ve found it.

This is why you do still need a good memory to be a doctor. It’s also why people do still come to see doctors when they could just google their symptoms and why we’ve not been replaced by robots (yet).

Is A Lot Of Medical School Just Memorisation?

If you’re thinking about applying to medical school, you might be feeling a bit nervous about the daunting prospect of five years of information-heavy lectures.

We’ve established that doctors need to have a good memory and do need to know a bit about lots of different things. So, does that mean medical school is just a lot of memorisation?

Medical school does consist of a lot of memorisation for students. However, medicine courses do also include the more tangible skills of clinical examination, the practical skills of basic clinical procedures and the intangible skillset of developing a good bedside manner.

To pass medical school exams, you are always going to need to cram your head full of facts, figures and diagnoses.

I’d always feel like my brain was a sponge completely saturated with water before an exam, just waiting to be wrung out so I could forget all the different topics I’d memorised at the last minute.

A couple of medical students revising for an exam together

Although memorisation definitely plays a big part in getting through the course, there is a lot more to it.

The key is that doctors don’t just get fed reams of information and then calculate a diagnosis.

They interact with patients.

And to interact with patients you need a good bedside manner, which requires both verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and you need to actually go out and get the information you want yourself. Which means being able to perform clinical procedures, such as taking a patient’s blood, and being able to examine patients effectively.

All of these elements are things you’ll be taught, and examined on, at medical school.

The vast majority of medical schools will pair a practical exam with every single written exam they give their students. So it’s not good enough just to be able to pass the theory element, which is admittedly just a lot of memorisation, you’ve also got to prove you’re able to practically perform as a doctor under pressure.

Do Doctors Doctors Remember Their Patients?

Doctors can see tens of patients in a day, hundreds in a month, and thousands in a year. So, with so many faces passing through their consulting rooms, are doctors able to remember any of them?

Doctors do often remember patients. A doctor is more likely to remember their patient if there was something out of the ordinary about their diagnosis, treatment, or outcome. If a doctor only very briefly met a patient a long time ago then they’re more unlikely to remember them.

There are some patients that I’ve treated in the past that I know I’ll never forget. Whether that be because they were particularly nice to me, rude, made a miraculous recovery or sadly passed away.

Doctors are of course only human, so if something stands out about a patient then they’re far more likely to remember them.

Sometimes it can only take a small jog of the memory, such as a colleague reminding me that this was the patient who attended last month for a ring they couldn’t get off, for my memory of the patient and all our interactions to come flooding back.

On the flip side, a patient can sometimes have a much better memory of the last time we met than I do. If they were the fifth patient I’d seen that morning with hay fever, but that was the first time they’d been to the doctors in five years, their interaction with me was far more out of the ordinary than my experience.

As a result, they were able to remember the consultation much better than me.

Final Thoughts

Doctors do have to work hard to stay current and keep their medical knowledge topped up. You do need to have a good memory to be a doctor, but you don’t need to be the next Einstein.

Although doctors will forget a lot of the specific detail medical school taught them, they’ll retain the broad concepts and build upon the more clinically relevant aspects of the curriculum.

As we’ve seen, there is no magic bullet to remembering medical knowledge, so with enough hard work, if you wanted to, I’m positive you’d be able to develop the standard of knowledge needed to practice medicine.

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.