Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Engineering and Medicine

I recently read a post over at that mirror belongs to frank in which the author puzzled about students from engineering wanting to go into medicine. I'm an engineer with both an undergraduate and a masters degree in bioengineering and yes, I always knew I wanted to be a doctor. Quite frankly though, I thought normal biomedical degrees were A) boring and B) less likely to get me into medical school because I would look like every other joe shmoe applicant.

I took the usual courses in biology, microbiology, physiology, chemistry, physics, biochemistry plus lots of other interesting things that run of the mill premed students are never taught: biosystems design, bioreactor and bioprocess design, differential equations (well, ok, that one wasn't very interesting), biomechanics, mechanics, heat and mass transfer, design, and the list goes on. And you know what? The courses that taught me the most stuff that has helped me in medical school were my engineering courses.

How can that be? Well, most of the mindlessly memorized information from my undergrad I forgot. What stayed with me was the ability to problem solve, find information in books and from other resources, talk to people and work with people, and think about things in non-conventional way. These are skills taught in engineering. As an honours medical student I can honestly say that not taking a biomedical science degree has not hurt me and it has helped me in ways I could have never imagined.

Yes, maybe medicine would be better if we decided in high school what degree we wanted to do and we went through a 6 year medical degree, but then we would miss out on a whole pool of applicants from unique backgrounds who will make great doctors. In my opinion, most of the learning in medical school occurs in clerkship. I think this is a profession that would benefit from more apprenticeship style learning. Clerkship is great because it takes what you've learned in the classroom in whirlwind style and solidifies it in your mind. Maybe med school should be 5 years with one additional year in clerkship. Maybe we should just attend school during the summers so more time can be allotted for clerking. I don't know.

All I know is that you can be an engineer who loved engineering but wanted to be a doctor.

I think that orthopedic surgeons are really mechanical engineers in disguise. I think that nephrologists are chemical engineers who work in the realm of medicine. I think physiatrists are biomechanists hiding out in white coats. Maybe you just have to be an engineer to understand where I'm coming from.

Note: for those of you who don't know what the ring at the top of the post represents you can read about it here.


Anonymous said...

At least you were a bio flavor of engineer - my undergrad degree is in mechanical engineering and my masters in electrical engineering, no medical relevance whatsoever -- and at the moment I'm a third year med student. That darn part-time job as an EMT that sucked me into the medical field was the most expensive part-time job I've ever had!

It's always interesting to see the funny looks I get from fellow students when I compare the problem-solving process in medicine to that in engineering... [grin] I firmly believe that my engineering background is much more of a help than an undergraduate biology degree would have been.

Dr. K said...

Thanks for this, medstudentitis. I'm going to link to this post from my original post so that people can read your story following my query.

You're not quite the type of student that I was speaking about (because you did take biology and physiology together with engineering) but it's terrific to hear from someone who has "been there, done that".

Thanks for the insight.

medstudentitis said...

Hi Dr. K,
Interestingly, I was talking to a friend who did a life sciences degree and she hasn't taken physiology or biochemistry before, so I guess we're not all ideally prepared for med school no matter what we've taken.

Artemis said...

Interesting post -- I got my engineering degree (M.S./biomechanical engineering) WHILE in medical school, because I thought I wanted to go into orthopedics and it would make me more it turns out, I chose a different field, but haven't regretted the extra year I spent getting the M.S.

Good luck as you finish up!

Anonymous said...

Good post. I am an electrical engineer in the space industry who, after being intimately involved in the medical school experience, decided to switch to a "more noble" profession. Volunteering in an ED (and solidifying my interest in medicine) while completing all of the med school pre-reqs at night has been interesting, and I'm now in the post-interview wait-and-see mode. I'm hoping that I'll agree with you (engineering coursework and problem-solving being beneficial in medicine) in a year, but I can say that I've noticed a difference in the undergrad classes I've already completed. The mindset of retaining ideas and the general workings of concepts (versus mem and regurg)has translated well into the rote-memorization mode of pre-med courses, and I believe my background has allowed me to excel in my pre-reqs, even the supposed "hard" classes like Organic and Genetics. Thanks for letting me know others out there have made it and are doing well.

Jessica said...

I did biomedical engineering in undergrad as well. It definitely seems to help with problem solving, etc. I did hate the rote memorization of the first two years of medical school though.

Anonymous said...

I'm a double in international relations and biomedical science and was discouraged from taking on chemical engineering (in place of biomed) because "you know what you want to do, why waste time?" (since I'll be 25 when entering med school, I guess it was a stab at not wasting time in an engineering degree)I'm at the point where I'm tackling premed requirements and biomed electives an am bored witless! Sometimes I wonder if I should just take a little longer and do something that actually intrigues me. Props to you, I admire your approach.