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What Do You Learn In Medical School? (UK Medical Curriculums)

What Do You Learn In Medical School? (UK Medical Curriculums)

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.

A person can enter medical school without knowing the first thing about medicine but leave with all the knowledge they need to start work as a doctor.

But to achieve this transformation, what do you actually learn in medical school?

Medical school aims to teach students everything they need to know to become doctors. This starts with a grounding in the sciences, such as biology, biochemistry and physiology, and then progresses to practically applying this knowledge, for example determining the right drug to treat a condition.

Before I went to medical school, I can’t say I really knew what the whole thing entailed or much about what I was going to learn.

However, having now completed my degree and put that knowledge into practice, I thought I’d write this article to shed a bit more light on the process in case you’re trying to learn more about what studying medicine is really like.

What Do You Learn In The First Year Of Medical School?

The first year of medical school is an exciting time.

I’d just left school, had more independence than ever before and was starting to actually study medicine at university- after working so hard to get an offer the previous year.

After the initial welcome period and freshers week, you do quite quickly get on to learning some serious science.

The first few years of medical school are all about giving you the scientific grounding to be able to make sense of the theory that you’ll learn in later years.

For example, you can’t learn how a diuretic drug works, which causes the kidneys to excrete more urine, if you don’t actually know how the kidneys work in the first place.

Compared to peers on other courses, the first year of medical school is pretty full on.

Topics covered in my first year included biology, chemistry, biochemistry, physiology and anatomy to name a few.

Medical students sat in a biochemistry lecture

It can get incredibly detailed- for example, I remember having to learn the distance between two consecutive turns of the double-stranded DNA helix.

I can’t say I’ve ever used that knowledge in my clinical practice as a doctor (nor can I truthfully say I actually remember the distance…) but I’m sure learning about it had some relevance to cell replication or viral DNA insertion or the like.

Most modern medicine curriculums will involve some element of patient contact in the first year, but this is arguably more to keep students motivated rather than to really focus their learning.

It’s a lot easier to motivate yourself to learn about dysfunctional cell replication from a textbook if you’ve just been observing the treatment of cancer patients, for example.

The real aim of medical school’s first year is to lay the groundwork for more clinically focused learning later on.

What You Learn In The Preclinical Years

Traditionally, medical schools had a very clear preclinical/clinical split in their curriculums.

In the first half of the course, the preclinical years, you’d learn almost exclusively theory without much patient contact.

In the second half of the course, you’d leave the lecture theatre behind and spend almost all your time on hospital wards meeting patients and putting the theory into action.

Almost every medical school in the UK has moved away from this clearly defined split, with the exception of places like Oxford and Cambridge, and has moved towards more of an integrated curriculum.

These modern integrated medical curriculums introduce patient contact far earlier and will keep teaching at least some theory throughout the course.

However, although not as clearly demarcated, there does still exist some division at medical schools across the UK.

What You Learn In Medical School Pixel Infographic

It’s grounded in necessity- there’s just not much point in spending tonnes of time watching knee operations if you don’t know the basic anatomy of the knee for example.

In my preclinical years at the University of Leicester, most of my time was spent in either lectures or small group teaching, and mainly continued the focus from first year on scientific fundamentals.

I remember we’d have a couple of sessions each term with actors to learn how to take a patient history, but aside from a few other similar schemes, there wasn’t a huge amount of patient contact.

At Leicester, which is where I studied, I think it was about the 2.5-year mark that things really started shifting towards being more clinically focused.

This was then the start of the clinical years.

What You Learn In The Clinical Years

Your clinical years at medical school are when you start to understand why you’ve just spent two years being examined on gas exchange principles in the lungs, fluid dynamics in the blood vessels and electrical conduction in the heart.

It’s when you start to actually see textbook descriptions brought to life by real patients in front of you.

In your clinical years at medical school, you’ll generally spend time on placements in different departments of a hospital.

For example, you might spend 4 weeks shadowing doctors in the Emergency Department, 4 weeks shadowing a surgeon in theatres and then 4 weeks shadowing a GP in a GP practice.

You will still have some group teaching, seminars and theory exams, but your time won’t be exclusively spent in a lecture theatre.

Medical students in a small group teaching session

I personally found it was pretty much a 50:50 split between being in hospital and either studying at home or learning in a more formal seminar or lecture.

Throughout your clinical years, you come into contact with lots of different senior doctors- either by directly observing them or by working alongside them.

This is when you can pick up invaluable tips on your bedside manner, how to break bad news and generally interact with patients.

Whereas your time in the preclinical years is often split according to subject matter, for example biochemistry lectures on Tuesday then anatomy on Wednesday, your time in the clinical years is often split according to specialty.

For example, a 6-week placement in paediatrics or an 8-week placement in gastroenterology.

Alongside your time spent on the wards in the clinical years you are still very much being examined, with it all culminating in your medical school finals in your 5th or 6th year.

The Other Elements You Learn In Medical School

I’d be giving the wrong impression if what you take away from this article is that all you do is learn science in the first 2.5 years of medical school and then shadow doctors for the second 2.5 years.

There is a huge amount of learning, that I’ve not included in this article, that’s required to take a student from direct school leaver to junior doctor.

For example, you can’t just diagnose patients from a textbook. You need to know:

  • How to talk to patients to elicit important information
  • How to physically examine them
  • How to make them feel comfortable as you consult them

There are the practical skills needed to function as a junior doctor:

  • Taking blood
  • Inserting cannulas
  • Catheterising patients

Then there are the more ethical components of being a doctor:

  • Learning the values and standards upheld by the medical community
  • Understanding important moral considerations of treating patients
  • Appreciating you are a representative of the medical profession

A lot of medicine is focused on the facts, diseases and specific treatments required for treating different conditions, but a doctor without the ethical component is an incredibly dangerous practitioner.

Final Thoughts

Medical school will likely always be the period of my life that I learnt the most in the shortest amount of time.

There is just a huge amount of information you have to take in over the course of your medical degree.

What I learnt at medical school is what took me from an 18-year-old fresh out of school to a newly minted junior doctor starting work in the NHS.

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.