4 Jun 2015

pharmacology learning: tackling one drug at a time

Pharmacology is a huge and important topic for medical students. There are just so many subtitles within it: indications, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, contraindications, side effects... and these are the only sections I can think of off the top of my head and it doesn't even include dosage and mode of administration which are just as important!

I'll admit that how I've gone about learning pharmacology has been somewhat unorthodox. I enjoy learning about medicines and chemical agents that have a physiological effect on the body (see what I did there? I bypassed the use of the word 'drugs' ;) ) so, in a way, it has come a bit easier and possibly a bit more naturally to me due to my biochemistry background.

Nonetheless, here are the stages I took to learn pharmacology.

1) Write out the brief details for each commonly prescribed drug.

Using a combination of various textbooks and lecture notes, I'll write out the drug class, indications, side effects, contraindications, interactions and other special points. I usually leave mechanism of action out unless I'm really struggling to remember it (as I'm okay with the mechanism of most medicines that we needed to know for exams this year).

2) Flashcards are amazing for pharm learning!

They can enable you to make piles of them: 'drugs I'm confident with', 'drugs I'm a bit fuzzy on' and 'drugs I definitely need to dedicate more time to' are just three piles I use myself. Plus, they are useful for learning in pairs where you can ask a friend to quiz you and vice versa! I get my sister to quiz me usually because she's not a medic so she can't judge me if I get an obvious thing wrong!

Pictured below are the Rang and Dale Pharmacology Flashcards and some I made myself.

3) Draw things out, over and over!

I learn by doing and also by using pictures/visual aids so for me, this is essential. I use colour, boxes, arrows and try to strip everything down as much as possible. 

4) Integrate pharm learning with clinical medicine!

One thing I did was draw out a table of the conditions I needed to know for exams this year and then try and remember the 1st line, 2nd line and 3rd line drugs for them all from memory. This helped me identify gaps and areas of confusion so that I could give them more attention during revision.

5) Test yourself when on the wards with drug charts!

Get hold of a patient's chart and test yourself. What class of drug is it? Why was it prescribed? What else is the patient on - are there any drug interactions? Look at the dose and then compare this with the British National Formulary (there's a phone app for it now - super handy!). Is the drug chart filled in correctly? When was each medication given - is there a particular reason for the timings? Etc, etc.

Furthermore, relating a drug to a patient you've seen makes it that much easier to remember what the drug is, why it was prescribed and the effect it had on them.

Ultimately, pharmacology is a balance between memorisation and understanding the mechanism of action of the drugs. I personally enjoy pharmacology learning and I can't, for the life of me, tell you why - I think it's just one of those weird things about me. My memory has always been pretty good so maybe that's why?

Do you have any tips? I'm always looking for ways to improve my pharm knowledge!


  1. You're so good about handwriting your notes out! I'm pretty reliant on my computer. The only way that works for me when learning pharmacology or microbiology, where I pretty much have to memorise things, is putting things into tables with the drugs as rows and mechanism/side effects/contraindications as columns, so I can compare them all and compartmentalise them in my mind. And yeah, seeing drugs being put into practice with patients definitely helps.

    1. I have to write everything out otherwise it doesn't go into my brain unfortunately :( I know people who use OneNote, etc and they love it but it's something that doesn't work for me.

      Microbio and pharm are two huge modules and I do agree that tables are brilliant for them :) that and mind maps! x

  2. I love your posts about study, taking notes etc. You motivate me to study. Thank you for your work :)

    1. Thank you for your lovely comment :-) Hope studying is going well x

  3. I'm a pharmacy student so I know your struggles all too well! For each condition I like to do tables as well. I'll list out the indications, mechanism of action, pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, the important precautions and contraindications and side effects and interactions, and anything else worth noting about the drug. Then for each condition I write out what is 1st line, 2nd line and any alternatives if the patient has allergies.

    I type my notes so I like to download lots of cute fonts and I customise my notes that way. Apart from using textbooks and lecture notes I look at a lot of different guidelines as well which tell you what treatments are recommended and when.

    But when in doubt, ask your pharmacist ;)
    All the best!!

    1. Definitely agree that if in doubt, ask a pharmacist! That's the beauty of the NHS here in the UK, hospital pharmacists go on ward rounds too and are so approachable.

      I bought the Top 100 Drugs book for this year and it's been a life saver with condensing all the info with regards to pharmacokinetics and pharmacodynamics along with the more clinically relevant things (such as dosing, how to tell the patient what the drug is for as well as the cost of the drug itself). If you're in the UK, it might be worth a punt - the authors are lecturers at my medschool and they are very, very good lecturers :) x