The prerequisites for PA School vary widely by program, but one that you’ll definitely need for every PA school is physiology.
At UC Davis, the first meaty class we take–in the summer quarter of year one–is pathophysiology, the physiology of disease. It takes physiology a step further by covering what happens in the body when things break down–inflammation, infection, cell death etc. Pathophysiology provides a foundation of medical knowledge that makes you feel like you’ve really started PA school, and it sets the stage for learning to come.
But PA school generally lasts between 24 and 30 months, so there just isn’t time to review the prerequisites like physiology. If you need to review, you’ll be doing it on your own time. What this means for you: any serious holes in your understanding of physiology will dog you right from the start. If you’re psyched about having completed your prerequisites for PA school and you want to make use of them, you might as well make good use of them.
So today, to help keep you motivated (or appropriately nervous) about your pre-PA studies, I’m listing a few of the physiology concepts that you should master before you get to PA school. Believe me: I had my own areas of weakness that I wish I had polished them up before those first crazy weeks at UC Davis. If any of these topics make you groan or break out in little beads of sweat, take it as a sign that you have some work to do to make peace with them now.
The Action Potential. I hated it the first three times I learned it (General Biology, Cell Biology, Biochemistry), but the fourth time (physiology) was a charm for me. Understand it, and you’ll be ready to learn about neurological disorders like multiple sclerosis and myasthenia gravis, and medications that affect action potentials, such as cholinergics (atropine), beta blockers (propranolol), and adrenergics (albuterol). Fun stuff.
- The Nephron. The nephrologist who lectured to us about acid/base disorders said that many physicians don’t know nephrology beyond the very basics because even she finds it confusing, and it’s all she does all day. The nephron controls water and electrolyte balance, blood pressure, acid/base balance, drug excretion, and more. Start with the big picture, and avoid memorizing where possible.
- The Menstrual cycle. I know, I know. It’s just a mess of hormones that are always in flux. But you’ll use it plenty in the clinic: treating infertility, prescribing birth control and hormone replacement therapy, and dealing with break through menstrual bleeding (bleeding between cycles).
- Electrolyte and water balance. One of the more advanced physiology concepts, but you’ll see it often, and often with #2, above. Memorize the renin/angiotensin/aldosterone system (RAAS) – it’s the concept that has the combination of 1) most confusing, and 2) most commonly encountered.
Three Concepts That Don’t Matter Much
- Knowing how many ATP a cell produces and where each one is produced was one of my physiology professors’ favorites, but I’d like to write her to explain how unuseful that was. You won’t see it beyond one exam, if that. Just know that with oxygen you produce a lot of ATP, and without it, you only produce a little, along with lactic acid, and in a process that is not sustainable.
- All that time you spent on osmosis and diffusion in the physio lab–you remember–with semi-permeable membranes and hyper/hypo-tonic solutions? Hugely over-weighted. Don’t obsess. Think big picture here.
- G-Protein Coupled Adenylyl Cyclase-cAMP system: Are they serious? What dufus thought that would be useful in medicine? You may never see it after physiology.
Hang in there, pre-PA’s you’ll get through it. And I promise you: it gets better…