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How My Physics Training Prepared Me for Medicine

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As someone who received an undergraduate degree in physics and mathematics, I have always been fascinated by the fundamental questions about the nature of reality and how science can be used to understand and improve the world around us. As I trekked along the path to becoming a particle physicist, I began to find myself drawn toward the field of medicine — eventually altering my life's path toward a career in hospice and palliative medicine.

While hospice and palliative care may not seem immediately related to physics, a strong understanding of the physical principles underlying various medical technologies and techniques can be extremely useful in this specialty.

For example, medical imaging techniques such as CT scans, MRIs, and PET scans are frequently used to diagnose and monitor the progression of terminal illnesses and can provide important information about the location and extent of tumors or other abnormalities. These techniques rely on principles of radiation and magnetism to generate signals that are detected by sensors and used to construct images of the body's tissues and organs. A deep understanding of the physical principles underlying these techniques can be essential for optimizing their performance and accurately interpreting the resulting images.

In addition, a background in physics can be helpful for understanding the design and operation of medical devices such as prosthetics, pacemakers, and artificial joints, which may be used to improve the quality of life for patients with terminal illnesses. These devices often rely on a combination of mechanical, electrical, and materials science principles to function effectively. Understanding how these principles interact can be crucial for designing reliable and effective devices.

Finally, physics can also be helpful in understanding the mechanisms behind drug delivery systems, which are frequently used in hospice and palliative care to control pain and other symptoms in terminal illness. These systems use various strategies to deliver medications to specific parts of the body in a controlled manner, including encapsulating drugs in nanoparticles, using electric or magnetic fields to guide drugs to specific locations, or using biodegradable polymers to release drugs over time. A solid understanding of the physical principles involved in these systems can be essential for optimizing their performance and improving their efficacy.

While I am delighted that I followed my interests in physics and math, as they ultimately led me to my calling, I was curious to know how applicable my physics background would be outside radiation oncology. While I have listed a few practical applications of that knowledge, I was more surprised by the non-obvious applications of my physics training in how physicians think about medicine.

The first-principles way of thinking, emphasized in the study of physics, involves breaking down complex problems into their fundamental components and using logical reasoning and fundamental principles to understand and solve them. By understanding the basic principles that govern a system, we can gain insight into its behavior and find solutions to problems that may not be immediately obvious.

In medicine, first-principles thinking can be beneficial for understanding and treating diseases. By breaking down a patient's symptoms and medical history into their fundamental components and using logical reasoning and evidence-based principles to understand the underlying causes of a patient's condition, physicians can develop accurate diagnoses and effective treatment plans.

For example, a physician using a first-principles approach might consider a patient's age, gender, medical history, and current symptoms to identify possible underlying causes of a condition and then use laboratory tests and other diagnostic tools to confirm or rule out differential diagnoses. By considering the underlying principles that govern the body's systems and functions, the physician can develop a complete understanding of the patient's condition and develop a targeted treatment plan that addresses the root causes of the problem.

Overall, the first-principles way of thinking emphasized in physics can be extremely useful for how medical doctors think about medicine and treat diseases. By breaking complex problems into their fundamental components and using logical reasoning and evidence-based principles, physicians can develop more accurate diagnoses and effective treatment plans, ultimately leading to better patient outcomes.

In other words, undergraduate physics training has many practical applications in medicine. From understanding medical imaging techniques to designing and operating medical devices, a background in physics can be invaluable in the medical profession. However, the benefits of physics training extend beyond practical applications. The ability to think in first principles, a skill developed through studying physics, can be instrumental in clinical reasoning.

Given the numerous ways physics training can benefit the medical field, we should encourage undergraduate physics students to consider pursuing a career in medicine. The combination of these two areas of study has the potential to lead to innovative and effective health care solutions. It is crucial to nurture and support the next generation of medical professionals with diverse backgrounds and expertise.

Did your undergraduate degree prepare you at all for medicine? Share how in the comments!

Samuel is a fourth-year medical student at Central Michigan University College of Medicine who is currently applying to combined medicine-pediatrics residency programs and hopes to pursue hospice and palliative medicine.

Image by everything bagel / Shutterstock

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