The medical profession is one of the most essential in modern society, so it stands to reason that medical degrees are lengthy, demanding and altogether among the most challenging and competitive paths to embark upon. Very few other subjects rely so heavily on your confidence in yourself, absolute commitment to the field, and desire to make a difference in real people’s lives.
Those who choose to study medical degrees will need a strong interest in the sciences, along with a passion for helping others – and it’s a combination of these two factors that provides the motivation needed to keep going through the many years of training required to become a fully qualified doctor.
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Getting into medical school
Given the prestige associated with the medical professions, and the extremely challenging nature of most medical careers, it’s unsurprising that getting into medical school is extremely competitive. In order to gain a place at a top medical school, it’s necessary to demonstrate exceptional grades in science subjects (especially chemistry and biology), as well as showing evidence of commitment to the field. This will usually mean gaining work experience, perhaps at a local healthcare center, private consultancy or another type of care facility such as an elderly care home.
If you have managed to gain the grades and the work experience necessary to secure a place on a medical course, then the chances are you’re no stranger to hard work. Despite this, you’ll need to be prepared for even more challenges, both during your studies and in the years ahead. This is a profession that can demand a lot both intellectually and emotionally, with an intensive and time-consuming workload.
What to expect from a medical degree
As well as allowing you to specialize in a particular division of medicine, medical degrees also provide students with the practical skills needed for specialized hands-on tasks (from taking a blood sample to complex surgical procedures), and the ‘people skills’ needed for interaction with patients and relatives.
Many top medical schools today consider practical development a key focus of their programs. This means that as well as attending seminars and lectures, you will have the opportunity to observe professional healthcare practitioners, and increasingly to start gaining practical experience yourself.
Finally, it’s important to remember that medical training is structured differently in different countries, and medical qualifications gained in one country are not necessarily recognized in others. So before deciding on a location for your medical studies, make sure you think carefully about where you’d like to go on to work, and the process required to complete your qualification.
While there are many possible medical specializations, all medical degrees will start out with a more general grounding in the subject. This should give you an in-depth understanding of human biology, the principles of disease processes, and an introduction to different medical solutions and clinical procedures.
Further along, fields of specialization may include:
This is the part of medical care which makes it possible to numb a patient’s sensations, either in a specific part of the body, or by inducing complete unconsciousness. Specialists in anaesthetics (anaesthetists) are essential members of surgical teams, and are also involved in developing treatments to relieve chronic pain. Further levels of specialization could mean focusing on treating a particular type of case – whether within surgery or pain management. The role combines an in-depth understanding of applied physiology and pharmacology with practical, hands-on skills.
This medical specialization involves using different types of imaging technology, including radiography, ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to diagnose and treat patients. Radiology can be vital in providing an accurate and early diagnosis which helps to improve treatment prospects and is fundamental to the management of cancer care. Radiologists also play an important role in identifying sources of disease and reducing the risks of further spread.
Specializing in paediatrics means focusing on children’s health, with the aims of providing sensitive and effective treatment, while allowing young patients to lead lives as normal as possible. General paediatrics remains the bedrock of this field, but there are also opportunities to specialize in primary care, child and adolescent psychiatry and public health, as well as combining paediatrics with specializations in particular conditions, such as diabetes, cystic fibrosis and epilepsy.
This is the medical and surgical management of conditions of the eye and related issues. The range of conditions encountered within ophthalmology is wide and covers all age ranges. Common issues include trauma, cataracts, diabetic eye disease and congenital and genetic eye problems. There are many opportunities for sub-specialization, as well as academic and laboratory-based positions.
Obstetrics and gynaecology
Specializing in obstetrics and gynaecology means focusing on the care of pregnant women, their unborn children, and the management of diseases specific to women. Most consultants in this field are generalists, but possible sub-specializations include materno-fetal medicine, gynaecologic oncology and reproductive medicine. Surgical work in this field means working closely with specialists in fields such as urology, colorectal surgery and oncology, as well as liaising with endocrinologists, renal physicians and cardiologists.
General practitioners (GPs) are the first point of contact for most patients around the world. The bulk of general practice work is carried out during consultations in GP surgeries and during home visits. GPs provide a complete spectrum of care within their local community and deal with a wide range of problems combining physical, psychological and social elements. GPs must draw on an extensive knowledge of medical conditions and be able to quickly and confidently assess a problem and decide on the appropriate course of action.
Medical graduates can expect fairly secure career prospects (after all, society will always need doctors), with significant financial rewards. Within medical careers, however, you'll find a large amount of variation in salaries, depending on which medical specializations you choose and the level of expertise you reach. A general practitioner, for example, would not expect to earn as much as a neurologist or plastic surgeon.
Working in a hospital or surgery
The majority of medical degree graduates go on to become practising physicians – the traditional hands-on role of diagnosing and treating patients, working in a hospital or surgery. As discussed in the previous section, there are many possible different specializations here, ranging from general practice to highly specialized areas of diagnosis and treatment.
However, beyond roles based in hospitals and surgeries, there are several other alternative settings for medical careers.
Some graduates of medical degrees choose to go into medical research, using their expertise to contribute to the understanding of diseases, and the development of new diagnostic techniques and treatments. This could mean researching the causes of different illnesses, examining the effectiveness of new drugs, or working on advancing medical technologies such as those involved in developing artificial limbs, fertility treatments and gene therapy.
Further options for medical careers
There are also a range of medical career options that take medical graduates out of the more familiar settings for medical care. This include:
· Defence medical services, which employ military and civilian doctors to provide medical support to armed forces personnel around the world.
· Prison health services, where medical professionals provide the same treatment as they would in any hospital or surgery. Knowledge of fields such as mental health and substance abuse would be advantageous in this role.
· Working abroad in developing countries, to help improve access to health care and/or to provide emergency relief. Development work may include establishing medical infrastructures, running clinics and managing medical education programs. Specializations in accident and emergency, obstetrics and gynaecology, public health, infectious diseases and general practice are all in high demand.
· Expedition officers, who are employed to treat holidaymakers on expeditions and trips abroad. In this role, medical professionals should be able to anticipate and prepare for potential dangers such as altitude, gastroenteritis and infections.
Other alternatives to clinical practice
Beyond the various roles associated with health care provision, candidates with the skills and abilities gained from medical degrees are also likely to be highly valued across a broad range of employment sectors. Examples of career options that would combine a medical background with a new field include medical journalism, medical law, pharmaceutical development, medical education, health service management, and health care policy.