Philosophy and Medicine
Angira Patel, MD
As a philosophy major in college before medical school, I believe I learned what it means to be a good doctor equally from my humanities classes as from my science classes.
"To Be a Good Doctor, Study the Humanities"
Philosophy has proven itself to be excellent preparation for medical school. Clear and logical thinking is as important in medicine as it is in law, but the study and practice of medicine requires something else: expertise in grappling with the vast array of moral questions that now confront doctors, nurses, medical scientists, administrators, and government officials. These are, at their core, philosophical questions. Dr. Angira Patel writes,
Studying the humanities helps students develop critical-thinking skills, understand the viewpoints of others and different cultures, foster a just conscience, build a capacity for empathy, and become wise about emotions such as grief and loss. These are all characteristics that define a good doctor.1
David Silbersweig, a Harvard Medical School professor, makes a good case for philosophy as an essential part of a well-rounded medical education:
If you can get through a one-sentence paragraph of Kant, holding all of its ideas and clauses in juxtaposition in your mind, you can think through most anything. . . . I discovered that a philosophical stance and approach could identify and inform core issues associated with everything from scientific advances to healing and biomedical ethics.2
Medical School and the MCAT
The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) does not require or even recommend any particular undergraduate major as preparation for medical school. However, AAMC suggestions state a crucial warning: "It should be strongly emphasized that a science major is not a prerequisite for medical school, and students should not major in science simply because they believe this will increase their chances for acceptance." Further, the AAMC notes, "For most physicians...the undergraduate years are the last available opportunity to pursue in depth a non-science subject of interest, and all who hope to practice medicine should bear this in mind when selecting an undergraduate major."
You need knowledge of upper–division sciences in order to do well on the MCAT.
According to the AAMC, you only need an introductory level of knowledge of physics, biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, biochemistry, psychology and sociology for the MCAT. Some passages may describe upper-division topics, but correctly answering the questions will not require upper-division knowledge. 3
"Don't make the mistake of attempting to conform to some idealized version of the standard premed," writes Dr. Paul Jung in Major Anxiety: If you think biochemistry is your ticket into medical school, think again. "A successful medical school application endorses your unique individuality, separating you from the rest of the pack. Don't waste your time demonstrating your ability to emulate other standard premed attributes. Instead, spend your valuable time cultivating your own abilities."
A philosophy major doesn't just make an applicant more interesting; the study of philosophy develops skills which are immensely useful for not only getting into medical school but for success in practice.
Philosophy majors typically outperform other majors on entrance exams, and the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is no exception. And although there are fewer applicants from the Humanities than many other majors, the acceptance rate in 2020-21 was 48%. For comparison, the acceptance rate for applicants with degrees in the biological sciences was 42%, and only 39% for graduates of specialized health sciences.
The MCAT tests science skills. You don't need to worry as much about the verbal section.
Good reading skills are very important for the MCAT, even in the science sections. For example, humanities majors outperform biological sciences major on every part of the MCAT, not just the verbal section! Medical school admissions officers actually weigh the Critical Analysis and Reasoning section the heaviest of the entire MCAT, because they view it as a measure of a student's ability to learn and communicate. 3
The MCAT consists of four sections: Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems; Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems; Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior; and Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills (CARS).
Since philosophy trains students to comprehend difficult material and struggle critically with dense texts, it is perhaps not surprising that philosophy majors do very well on the CARS section. However, the study of philosophy develops many other skills which are directly transferable to a career in medicine.
The AAMC lists 15 core competencies for a career in medicine, divided into 3 categories: pre-professional competencies, thinking and reasoning competencies, and science competencies.4
|Core Competencies||Relevant Skills Developed by Philosophy
|Pre-Professional Competencies||Includes: Service Orientation, Social Skills, Cultural Competence, Teamwork, Oral Communication, Ethical Responsibility to Self and Others, Reliability and Dependability, Resilience and Adaptability, Capacity for Improvement||There is no better training for understanding the complex issues of Ethics than the
study of Philosophy. Consideration of responsibility and value makes philosophy majors
better able to appreciate and respond to social and cultural differences. The Philosophy
major provides an excellent opportunity for developing skills in effective oral communication
through classroom discussions.
|Thinking and Reasoning Competencies||Includes: Critical Thinking, Quantitative Reasoning, Scientific Inquiry, Written Communication||Philosophy excels in the development of critical thinking skills. Understanding the nature of logic and scientific evidence, another skill fostered by the study of philosophy, is crucial to scientific inquiry and quantitative reasoning. A philosophy major also requires extensive practice in clear and accurate written communication.|
|Science Competencies||Includes: Living Systems, Human Behavior||A philosophy major makes an excellent preparation for or companion to scientific study. Philosophy enhances one's capacity to frame hypotheses, do research, and put problems into manageable form. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes clear formulation of ideas and problems, selection of relevant data, and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals.|