Doctors without physics…

In what is an absurd suggestion, Ezekial Emanuel has suggested that medical schools cease requiring physics, organic chemistry, and calculus for incoming students, arguing that doctors never use those subjects in the daily practice of medicine. It is hard to overstate the absurdity of this suggestion. On the one hand, even if his claim was true (which it is not), the critical thinking skills one learns in those three classes, especially physics, are invaluable. As a colleague of mine argued yesterday, if you can make it through those courses, statistics and ethics ought to be a breeze (not to imply those courses are cakewalks, but that physics, organic chemistry, and calculus are excellent preparation).

Aside from that, his claim is just patently false. With advances in medical technology increasingly more complex it seems ridiculous for future doctors not to have a basic understanding of the principles behind this technology. Well-established equipment such as NMR and MRI require a knowledge of basic physics if one is to understand them properly. This is aside from the very basic knowledge of mechanics that just might be useful for kinesiology, orthopedics, etc. And how are doctors going to properly communicate with the physicists and engineers who are attempting to develop new technologies? Take, for example, the cover story for this month’s Physics Today discussing advances in prosthetics. At the very least, having had a course in physics, doctors working with physicists and engineers should be able to speak their language. And if there was any doubt about the importance of this, most hospitals now employ physicists in radiology departments and it is possible to obtain a degree in Medical Physics.

Besides, whatever happened to learning for its own sake?


18 thoughts on “Doctors without physics…

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  1. I don’t see how it’s absurd. Clearly the author of the piece (even though I cannot read it in its entirety since it is behind a pay wall) is an MD (and a Ph.D!) and is more of an expert in the field than you are (you are not an MD I presume but a Physicist). It sounds that they want to replace the physics et al with more useful courses such as case-studies et al. I realize your knee jerk reaction is “Oh no, they don’t want to study my favorite area!” but when you visit the doctor would you prefer being treated by someone who knew physics and calculus or by a doctor who was missing that but knew more about diagnosis and treatment?

  2. No, I am not an MD, but I have, for many years, taught pre-Medical students and worked closely with many MDs, nurses, PAs, physical therapists, and others in the medical field. While your everyday GP may not use physics much (though he/she will at some point, even unknowingly), it is a major component of many aspects of medicine (reread my original post for some specific examples). My concern has less to do with physics being my “favorite subject” (I have degrees in a wide range of subjects including a minor in philosophy) and more to do with my first-hand knowledge of its importance in medicine. Again, it might pay to reread my original post.

  3. As a further rebuttal, I visited the homepage of the medical school at my alma mater, the University at Buffalo and a simple glance at the department listing indicates the importance of physics in medicine. The most blatantly obvious are the departments of Nuclear Medicine, Physiology & Biophysics, and Radiology, the latter of which offers a program in Medical Physics!. Other departments that actively use physics include Neuroscience and Neurology as well as Rehabilitation Science (the latter being a field based entirely on mechanics – first semester physics!).

    Within the actual Department of Medicine itself (the diagnostic and treatment arm, I suppose you could call it), when I was at UB, my department (Mechanical Engineering which is just applied physics [mechanics]) had an active collaboration with the Division of Cariology, having developed several shunts used to treat non-ruptured aneurysms.

    I could go on but I would hope this is fairly convincing.

  4. I agree that physics should not be taught. It true than some very specific applications in biology require physics but practising physicians do not need to know physics. Heck even engineers often have a poor physics background (BTW I am an engineer who has a relatively good physics background).

    As for learning for the sake of learning, I don’t agree with this idea. I am a pure pragmatist. I think the value of knowledge is determined by the profit that can be had in believing in its truth.

  5. I think I might disable that anonymous feature. In any case, hey anonymous: I have a degree in engineering as well and was a practicing engineer for many years. Engineering is applied physics. Granted, engineers may not need to take intro physics if they’re going to get it all somewhere else anyway, but the same can’t be said for doctors. Did you read my post regarding the University at Buffalo medical school (I’m sure the same could be done for any medical school)?

    And I’m a pragmatist too, but I draw the line at cynical self-interest. You might as well just go live in a freakin’ cave filled with nothing but a bunch of socially inept engineers. Hell, why not just clone yourself a few thousand times and start your own country. Who needs other ideas anyway? And before you get all high-and-mighty and scream ‘hypocrisy,’ yeah, you’re entitled to your opinion but it just seems outlandishly self-serving and, quite honestly, impractical (despite your claim to pragmatism). I mean, how the hell can you function in a society with such a broad range of ideas and opinions without some knowledge across those areas?

    And, finally, as an engineer with what I consider an excellent degree, no one taught me critical thinking skills like the physicists.

  6. i personally do not enloy physics.
    Ok,i understand that it is of some kind of importance but i really wish that one would not need to study physics at school in order to be a doctor. i trully want 2 be a doctor,but…i dslike physics. i know that you can’t have your cake and eat it,.. so if physics is definately needed then i’ll try my best with it.

  7. Because it has some importance, as you admit, it is required. If it had no importance it wouldn’t be required. And I defer to my previous comments about why you need to know it if you’re going to be a doctor. You might also try a spellcheck.

  8. It certainly would not hurt! i started learning medicine but found it to easy pysics in perticular astropsyics is more challenging, I think most GPs today take details go in the back and google it anyway!

  9. Hi, i think that i saw you visited my blog thus i came to “return the favor”.
    I am trying to find things to enhance my site!
    I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

    1. NO. You do NOT have a right to use any of my ideas. Your message is clearly spam and the only reason I am not deleting it is to make it clear that you do not, nor does anyone else, have the right to use my ideas.

  10. Wrong, asking doctors to know how an MRI works is like asking a carpenter how his drill works or asking a bus driver how his bus was engineered; plain useless. I am starting a neuroscience undergrad to enter medical school in the following years and let me tell you that the science requirements, that I have already finished, are not only boring as hell but useless for a career in medicine

    1. So let me get this straight. You don’t even have a bachelor’s degree and yet you’re telling me that you know what is and is not useful to a doctor?

      And your comparison to bus drivers and carpenters is not correct. If it mattered to the health of the passengers how a bus worked, you better believe that a bus driver would know how it was engineered.

  11. I gotta agree with moxie here on something.
    There are plenty of doctors out there that I know that do not remember their biochemistry especially to the degree that it is usually taught in college and yet knowing the basics of it (like knowing what the name of the chemical is i.e. “methane”) has allowed them to work with hospital situations. If such a high level of knowledge or thinking power isn’t needed for med school why teach biochem in the first place? At my particular college premeds are also required to take 2 extra writing classes while pre-grads for any major (except obviously english) are only required the minimum to graduate. Why make a doctor more literate than is necessary than a grad student who will have to portray his/her own thought in academic publishing? At my school two math classes are required as well. Most premeds I’ve talked to have forgotten the math that they learned.

    If physics isn’t necessary for radiology, body fluid movement pressure (anything to do with needles for one), the electrical conduction system of the heart, cardiograms, etc. If no premed students is also thinking about being a biochemical, biophysical researcher, and if med students simply refuse to work with biophysicists and biomedical engineers on the implementation of new medical technology, then by all means, take physics away from the premed curriculum.

    1. First off, how in God’s name is physics not necessary for radiology, body fluid movement pressure, electrical conduction, etc.? That’s all physics!

      Second, pre-med majors often have no idea what field of medicine they’ll ultimately end up in.

      Third, physics is about more than just the material. It teaches a way of thinking that is foreign to biology and many chemistry students. Those students are used to working with complex systems from a more coarse-grained standpoint. Physics teaches reductionism in its purest form.

      Finally, regarding physics, math, writing, etc., whatever happened to the concept of a broad, “liberal” education? Studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of such education, and yet we seem to be moving toward a model of “just teach me what I need to know.” What, then, happens when you come across a problem you think you didn’t need to know how to solve? What do you do then? No wonder I am becoming increasingly fed up with modern medicine.

      1. You’re wrong because I was being sarcastic. I mean to agree in that we include everything which is the entire reason why I included all the detail where medicine needs physics.

        If we don’t need physics? why include anything else? is my message. Because many people will be in defense of biochem. Physics should be just as important as biochem even if many doctors have forgotten it. And if they happen to be in direct application of these subjects, then that’s where the fruits of their labor ripens. And I’m not in medicine at all, I just know many who are. So really, I don’t know who the “you” is.

  12. Reblogged this on Quantum Moxie and commented:

    One of my more “popular” posts from several years back talks about why physics is important to medicine. An interesting and related flash point on campus (my campus) recently has to do with our new core curriculum. I won’t bore you with details other than to point out the fact that it led me to yet another article demonstrating the importance of physics to medicine:

  13. Hey there, thank you for making this post. I am currently working on some guidelines about the physics in medicine, made specifically for premed education. I would appreciate if you could tell me the topics you cover at Buffalo’s University.

    I am a medical student from the best university in my country, and I often find myself thinking about the necessity of this. Many of my professors agree, but perhaps only make small efforts.

    Again, thanks.

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