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Education Medicine Science

Why Organic Chemistry Is So Difficult For Pre-Med Students 279

Hugh Pickens DOT Com writes "Science writer and 42-year old pre-med student Barbara Moran writes in the NY Times that organic chemistry has been haunting pre-meds since 1910, when the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching released a landmark report calling for tougher admission standards to medical school and for medical training based on science. "The organic chemistry on the MCAT is chemistry that students need to know to succeed in medical school," says Karen Mitchell, senior director of the MCAT Program. Basically, orgo examines how molecules containing carbon interact, but it doesn't require equations or math, as in physics. Instead, you learn how electrons flow around and between molecules, and you draw little curved arrows showing where they go. This "arrow pushing" is the heart and soul of orgo. "Learning how to interpret the hieroglyphics is pretty easy. The hard part is learning where to draw the little arrows," writes Moran. "After you draw oxygen donating electrons to a positive carbon a zillion times, it becomes second nature." But the rules have many exceptions, which students find maddening. The same molecule will behave differently in acid or base, in dark or sunlight, in heat or cold, or "if you sprinkle magic orgo dust on it and turn around three times." You can't memorize all the possible answers — you have to rely on intuition, generalizing from specific examples. This skill, far more than the details of every reaction, may actually be useful for medicine. "It seems a lot like diagnosis," says Logan McCarty. "That cognitive skill — inductive generalization from specific cases to something you've never seen before — that's something you learn in orgo." This takes a huge amount of time, for me 20 to 30 hours a week writes Moran. This is one thing that orgo is testing: whether you have the time and desire to do the work. "Sometimes, if a student has really good math skills, they can slide through physics, but you can't do that in orgo," says McCarty ."
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Why Organic Chemistry Is So Difficult For Pre-Med Students

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:05PM (#45317771)

    Problem is the AMA and the government control the number of residency spots. So if you get more applicants you don't get more doctors, they just make the testing harder. Doctors like this because it creates an artificial "doctor shortage" and keeps their wages up.

  • Re: I agree... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cold fjord ( 826450 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:11PM (#45317813)

    Just the fact that they call it "orgo" tells me it's weird. Where does the second O come from?

    Frustration. You can't scream a "g" in frustration. Try orggggggggggggggggggggggggggg as opposed to orgooooooooooooooooooooooooo.

    It's similar to Khannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn versus Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.

  • Re:I agree... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by cranky_chemist ( 1592441 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:42PM (#45318033)

    There's a certain perverse logic in using Organic I and II to weed students out.

    They're sophomore-level courses. They're also the most difficult two-course sequence all pre-med/pre-vet/pre-pharmacy students will collectively take during their first two years. Pre-med students outnumber the openings in medical school by at least 10 to 1. They must be weeded at some point. The sooner you weed them out, the sooner those students can stop wasting their time and tuition money on a course of study they will never complete.

    I'm not sure I agree with it, but that's the logic as it was explained to me.

  • by sunking2 ( 521698 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @12:53PM (#45318121)
    More like if you want to do memorization without killing someone if you are wrong, become a lawyer. I've yet to meet a lawyer who has impressed me with their ability to think.
  • Re:I agree... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by demonlapin ( 527802 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @01:32PM (#45318485) Homepage Journal
    You've got to weed them out at some point, and you're a heartless ass to let them go through an entire program if they really don't have a chance. Weed early and often.

    That said, as a chemistry major who decided to go to med school when I was a senior, I think it would be better still if we went to British-style medical education. The needs of physicians and chemists are different enough that they should be taught in separate classes. As a trivial example, doctors don't need to know that Grignard reagents exist. As others point out, spending that time on a rigorous education in statistics would serve them much better.
  • by Velex ( 120469 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @04:43PM (#45319735) Journal

    Sure, confidence about their profession and the subject matter that entails.

    Confidence that because they're MDs and therefore every other subject matter must be trivial compared to their social status... that's just disgusting when up against it.

    I had a conversation with an MD once when I used to work taking calls at a call center that went something like this. Now, this was at a separate company from the hospital and the MD's practice that had no access to the hospital or doctor's schedule.

    MD: "Are you illiterate? Why are you paging me when I'm in surgery? Are you too stupid to read what's in front of your face?"

    Me: "There's no information like that here. How can we find out when you're in surgery?"

    MD: "I don't need to tell you that because the problem is your lack of reading comprehension, Velex."

    Me: "Can somebody call us before you go into surgery so we can put a note here that says to hold your..."

    MD: "I don't need to put up with your attitude. Don't worry about coming into work tomorrow, Velex, because you don't have a job anymore."

    Somehow, that doctor was unable to fire me, and I came in the next day just fine.

    An MD who can't even figure out that he needs to get the practice manager to fax over his schedule or have an RN call in when he's going into surgery if he doesn't want to be paged while in surgery is a shitty problem-solver. That's not somebody I'd want giving me advice about something as important as my health. I'd sure as hell never want to be under that guy's knife.

    Of course, as others have pointed out, it all boils down to how the AMA keeps MDs artificially scarce so that their wages are inflated way beyond what they need to be. Org chem is that difficult because it's a weed-out course. We need to drop our collective attitude that MDs are something special. Open up more residency positions, let MD wages plummet from $400k down to around $100k where they ought to be, end hazing practices in residency programs, regulate their hours worked just the same as we regulate truck drivers' hours and for the same reasons too, and a lot of these problems will solve themselves.

  • Re:I agree... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @05:53PM (#45320167) Homepage Journal

    If more med schools open or expand to train more doctors, prices should fall. That accomplished, more doctors might actually create competition for patients (when is the last time you heard of a doctor not new to the area doing anything to attract new patients). For that matter, when is the last time you went to the doctor, found an empty waiting room and were told to go right back? Or called to set an appointment and were told any day is fine, morning or afternoon.

    This is one (of many) reasons healthcare is unaffordable in the U.S.

  • Re: I agree... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @06:44PM (#45320511)

    absolutely; pchem is way harder then organic

    It depends on what you are good at. I thought pchem was easy. Lots of differential equations (which I already knew from math classes), thermodynamics (which I already knew from engineering classes), and lots of quantum mechanics (which I already knew from physics classes). If you have the background, and are good at math, then pchem is easy. But orgo is just lots and lots of memorization. I hated it. However, I have found a knowledge of orgo to be a lot more useful in real life. Anything that is either alive or plastic is orgo.

  • by jncook ( 4617 ) on Sunday November 03, 2013 @07:04PM (#45320635) Homepage

    O-chem is useless for practicing physicians. Took it, did OK at it, passed the required tests in undergrad and early med school, never used it again. Licensing boards understand this; there is no organic chemistry on the final board examinations for Internal Medicine.

    In fact, thinking you understand low-level chemistry and biology can be dangerous for a practicing physician. For example, beta-blocker blood pressure medicines slow your heart rate and make your heart "squeeze" less strongly. We were initially taught that you should never give them to patients with heart failure -- their hearts didn't beat strongly to begin with. Given a basic understanding of the underlying biology withholding the medication made sense. Until someone studied them and found that for patients with mild heart failure beta-blockers reduced hospitalizations and death. And we had been withholding them for years. Whoops.

    You don't want your doctor prescribing things based on their understanding of biology. You want them prescribing on the basis of clinical trial data and statistics.

e-credibility: the non-guaranteeable likelihood that the electronic data you're seeing is genuine rather than somebody's made-up crap. - Karl Lehenbauer