6 Ways Nonscience Courses Can Prepare Students for Medical School

When the average person considers what medical school will be like, he or she probably conjures up an image of long nights in the anatomy lab dissecting cadavers, afternoons in the library memorizing biochemical pathways and early morning rounds discussing the differential diagnosis of abdominal pain.

There is another side of med school that less frequently comes to mind but is equally important. As medical students embark on their journey toward becoming doctors, they come in contact with real patients, each of whom has a personal story, a unique struggle and a distinct way of dealing with illness. Med students also witness human suffering, death and dying up close.

In many respects, this aspect of medicine is more complex and difficult to digest than the scientific side. A background in the humanities and arts can help med students better process these issues. Courses in these subjects also may cultivate qualities like empathy and cultural awareness, skills that will come in handy as med students interact with patients. It’s therefore no surprise that medical schools are pushing to admit more students who have strong backgrounds in the humanities.

[READ: 3 Considerations for Humanities Majors Applying to Medical School.]

A comprehensive premed education should include a variety of nonscience courses, which can provide preparation in at least six areas:

— Empathy.

— Curiosity.

— Emotional sensitivity.

— Abstract thinking.

— Improved communication.

— Better understanding of the health care system.


Courses like anthropology, sociology and history can help aspiring physicians gain a better grasp of the everyday lives of people from diverse backgrounds. Through such courses, students can better understand why people espouse different views, which in turn promotes a greater appreciation of different belief systems.

In med school, this appreciation allows students to connect with patients from diverse cultures, relate to their stories and more easily earn their trust. Further, through such courses, students can begin to think about how nonbiologic factors like culture and socioeconomic status can affect health.


Most premed students have a passion for science and a keen desire to understand the biological basis of disease. Nonscience courses allow students to expand their curiosity and develop a passion for understanding the psychosocial elements of a patient’s story. This type of curiosity translates to asking questions and listening astutely as patients share their lived experiences.

Listening is one of the most important qualities that med students can develop.

Emotional Sensitivity

The fine arts, literature and music are a great way to tap into the human condition as one seeks to understand the emotions expressed by the artist or writer. This can lead to a greater level of emotional awareness that will allow students to relate to patients better.

[Read: How a Music Background Can Help Premed Students]

Abstract Thinking

The basics of physiology or pharmacology may be black and white, but as you learn these concepts in more depth, you begin to see that there are many gray areas. The human side of caring for patients is also very abstract. Premed nonscience courses, especially courses in ethics and philosophy, can help premed students develop a more abstract framework.

This type of abstract thinking can be useful in numerous ways. First, it allows students to develop a more nuanced approach as they advance their understanding of medical science, navigate complex patient cases, read the medical literature and possibly engage in medical research. Second, it allows students to develop a more comprehensive framework for the many nuanced ethical and psychosocial issues that may affect a patient.

For example, a patient who refuses medical treatment on religious grounds or who is incapable of making decisions and has no next of kin can pose myriad challenges for any medical practitioner. Abstract thinking can be vital for tackling such challenging issues as they emerge.

Improved Communication

It goes without saying that doctors have to effectively communicate with patients to provide high-quality care. However, good physicians also have to write well. This is necessary in the clinical setting when documenting patient encounters, writing a patient history or putting together progress notes.

Doctors in training are tasked with these responsibilities as early as their first or second year of med school. They are also expected to give presentations on patients they see and various conditions they encounter.

Strong oral and written communication skills can be of great value in these settings. Such skills can be honed through courses in English composition or communication. Language courses can also be a useful way to develop skills to communicate with patients who are not fluent in English.

[Read: Advice for Premed Students Who Speak More Than 1 Language]

Better Understanding of the Health Care System

In today’s convoluted health care system, political and financial issues can influence the type of care that patients receive. Yet, such issues are not covered in any depth in medical school curricula, and many graduating med students have a superficial understanding of these topics despite their importance.

Courses in economics, finance and political science can help premed students acquire foundational knowledge about the political and financial issues that affect health care. These courses will allow students to better understand the workings of the American health care system and take into consideration the external forces that directly influence a patient’s ability to receive care, the quality of care received and health outcomes.

Along with the many practical advantages of taking such courses, cultivating an interest in subjects like ethics, philosophy and the arts can help prevent burnout, bringing joy and offering med students an outlet after a long day in the anatomy lab or on the wards.

More from U.S. News

How to Address Ethics Questions in Medical School Interviews

3 Reasons Premed Students Should Take a Creative Writing Class

What Type of Research Helps You Get Into Medical School?

6 Ways Nonscience Courses Can Prepare Students for Medical School originally appeared on usnews.com

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