Should physics be on the MCAT?

Unless the patient is on a train, physics doesn’t help


Train photo courtesy of kaffeeeinstein on Flickr

I forgot how much I hate physics.

If studying for the MCAT only included biology, chemistry, and verbal reasoning, I might have a serious shot. But throwing physics into the mix has me worried.

Way back in first year, almost three years ago, I thought I was saying goodbye to physics. Forever. After writing my exam, I would never have to see its face again. No more calculating the distance traveled by a projectile. Or determining how long it takes a soccer ball thrown from a height of 80 metres with an initial velocity of 10 metres per second to reach the ground. As for those two trains —the ones that are speeding towards each other, with hundreds of hypothetical passengers’ lives at stake — who cares what their final speed is, or how long it takes them to collide? Not me.

At least, I didn’t care until this summer. Now that I’m studying for the MCAT, physics has returned from the past — like a bad guy in an action movie who I thought was dead, but instead of shooting him a second time (just to be sure), I turned my back and didn’t notice the ominous music.

The problem is that the last time we saw each other, it didn’t end very well. Every time I tried to patch things up, physics would bring up the centrifugal force. Now, I’m asking myself: why is physics even tested on the MCAT?

Biology makes sense. Mostly. Some of the specifics seem a little irrelevant, like the details of cellular metabolism, but hey, med school is all about biology, right? And as much as I hate chemistry, I grudgingly accept the fact that it has a place in med school, too. Sure, I’d like to lie to myself and claim that chemistry has no real-world applications in medicine. But then I’d have to ignore the existence of pharmaceuticals (even the boring sections in my organic chemistry textbook are important for future doctors).

But for some reason, back when the MCAT was being created, someone stupidly invited physics to the party. I just don’t see how physics can help a doctor treat their patients. Unless the patient is a passenger on a train. A train that is heading south at a velocity of 80 kilometers per hour, on the same tracks as a train that is heading north at a velocity of 72 kilometers per hour…

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Should physics be on the MCAT?

  1. I’m on board the physics hating train, but the fact is that physics is applicable to medicine. Perhaps not the GP brand of medicine, but can you imagine a competant radiologist or oncologist without it?

    I hate it as much as you do, but I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it will be applicable for many of my colleagues, even if it is of very little use to me. At least you will be able to calculate the force exerted on the manubrium of that car collison trauma patient laying in front of you!

  2. The level of physics knowledge required to succeed on the MCAT is very basic – at the level of Grade 12 or first-year – and doesn’t even assume competence with basic calculus. I’m not sure why it’s too much to ask that prospective physicians be acquainted with physical forces – fluids, charges and currents, etc. I would further argue that physiology – especially cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, and neuromuscular – cannot be understood without competence in concepts in basic physics. You won’t need to do many calculations as such, but it’s not like there’s anything all that mathematically challenging on the MCAT.

    On the other hand, organic chemistry outside of some nomenclature and redox reactions is almost completely irrelevant. Post-MCAT you can consign any knowledge you had of electrophilic aromatic substitution and countless other mechanisms to the dustbin unless you plan on doing pharmacology research. Biochemistry? Absolutely – though the Krebs cycle isn’t anything you’ll be thinking about on call.

  3. Physics is important…Physics exists in radiology and radiation oncology….and ophthalmology….

  4. No offense Scott but this is the dumbest post I’ve ever seen on Macleans OnCampus.

    “Every time I tried to patch things up, physics would bring up the centrifugal force.” Good example, especially since you know, centrifuges are used in medical labs and all.

    Not to mention those basic kinematics problems in your post use the same basic physics as things like how much force a hip (or hip replacement) will need to handle.

    And you know… blood is a fluid… so the entire circulatory system deals with fluid mechanics. As do the lungs, and the urinary tract. And the entire nervous system deals with electrical conduction. And as pointed out above, the eyes deal with optics, and oncology and radiology both deal with radioactive decay. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

    “Or determining how long it takes a soccer ball thrown from a height of 80 metres with an initial velocity of 10 metres per second to reach the ground.”

    That’s more of a basic math problem than a physics problem. The time is just the square root of twice the distance times the acceleration. If you can’t do a square root, you probably shouldn’t be a doctor. Just saying.

  5. No offense taken, Ryan! But if this is the “dumbest post” you’ve ever read on Macleans OnCampus, I guess you don’t read my blog regularly.

  6. @The nurse will see you:

    You’ve actually raised some excellent points, thanks. Good thing I didn’t push the ‘wipe physics out of existence’ button.

  7. Physics is an important component such that medical practitioners need to understand how their equipment works however having it on the MCAT is a silly idea as it is not practiced in the arena of surgery.

  8. Wow. I made an account here just so that I could comment on this post. I’m a high school physics teacher. I’ve also tutored a number of people preparing for physics on the MCAT. From the sound of your post, you really, really do not “get” physics. And I don’t just mean how to solve physics problems. You seem not to understand what physics is and its connection to fields such as medicine – which to me indicates that you are not a suitable candidate for medicine. I know that I’m replying to a post from 4 years ago, but I’m going to write this for anybody who may share the sentiments of your post.

    First of all, physics DOES directly relate to many, many aspects of medicine. Don’t forget that physics is not limited to motion (though even motion applies!) Other fields of physics include Light (the eye, laser applications in medicine etc.), Sound (ultrasound) Electricity (nerve conduction, EEG, ECG etc.) Magnetism (MRI), Radiation (x-rays, CT, radiation therapy etc.) Fluids (blood flow, breathing etc.) etc. etc. etc. Not to mention the countless ways in which physics indirectly applies to medicine. Do a Google search for “Medical Physics” to see more.

    Secondly, physics is, in my heavily biased opinion, one of the best ways to develop critical thinking and problem solving skills, which are essential skills for doctors (among others). Although admittedly simplistic, consider that in solving a physics problem, you must first interpret the information you are given, organize it and put it in context. You must then identify the objective of the problem – what you are trying to achieve or determine. You must then link the information you are given to your objective by relying on prior knowledge, and your ability to creatively develop a path to finding the solution. Finally you have to actually execute this solution to solve the problem.

    Whether the nature of the problem was involving a two trains heading towards each other or a patient showing up with a set of symptoms that you have never seen before, it fundamentally comes down to problem solving. Doctors need to be proficient problem solvers. If you cannot solve problems, you cannot be an effective doctor.

    A few years ago I discussed this with my students and went so far as to strongly recommended that any students who are interested in medicine in their future take all three sciences in high school, BUT if for whatever reason they could only take 2 science credits, it was my recommendation that they take Physics and Chemistry. Our Biology teacher found out about this and called me out. How dare I recommend physics over biology for future medicine students?

    Neither he nor I are doctors, but I felt that I knew what I was talking about, so I called our local university’s faculty of medicine and chatted with the Dean of Medicine. She completely agreed with me on my recommendation. She had a lot to say about this, but the essence was “Send students to us who know the fundamentals of science and problem solving, and we’ll teach them the medicine part”.

    Your post is titled “Should physics be on the MCAT?” My answer is yes. If you cannot demonstrate a proficiency in the foundation of physical science, then maybe medicine is not for you.

    • As much as I’d like to agree with you, nowadays most Canadian medicals not require a science background to enter.

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