How to Understand Complex Medical Concepts Faster

I would have disappointed Feynman. I remember one day in placement I was helping a friend who asked for some help in understanding how bilirubin is metabolised.

I was pretty clued on bilirubin metabolism – for some reason it had stuck with me and I could vividly remember the metabolic pathways (cool right?) I felt up to the task so began trying to explain the process.

However, what proceeded to fall from my mouth was disorganised, non-sense. “UDP glucuronyl transferase” this, “Space of Disse” that. Just words, no sauce.

My friend was more confused than before I answered. I thought I had known what I was talking about, but right there at that moment, I wasn’t helpful at all. I would have disappointed Feynman – Sure I knew the niche stuff, but I hadn’t mastered the concept enough to explain it simply.

In this article we’re going to talk about how you can use the Feynman technique to better understand medical concepts faster.

Don’t settle for just knowing the name of something medical. Instead, seek to understand it.

🥜Article in a nutshell


  • 1) What is the Feynman technique?
  • 2) Why all medical students should be using the Feynman technique
  • 3) MedEd examples in action
  • 4) Four step process on mastering the Feynman technique in medical school

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🤔What is the Feynman technique?


The Feynman technique is a named after Prof. Feynman (shock). Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist who made significant contributions to the field of quantum mechanics. In addition to being a prolific writer and lecturer, Feynman is also credited with helping to popularize physics among non-scientists.

His career as an expert was marked by his ability to make complex concepts sound simple.

The Feynman technique is simple. It’s a way of understanding complex concepts by breaking them down into their simplest form. This technique can be used to understand almost anything, as long as you can describe it in a way that a 12**-year-old would understand it. By understanding concepts simply, its thought that we can better remember and understand them.

Experts can make complex concepts sound simple, as Feynman did throughout his career.

**We could say younger but good luck explaining the clotting cascade to a 5-year-old

✌️Why all medical students should be using the Feynman technique.


Highlighting what you don’t know

The Feynman technique is great at identifying what you don’t know. Medical students commonly fall into the trap of THINKING they know content, but then when put on the spot, they fail to articulate understanding – spitting waffle rather than spitting facts. Think of the times you’ve been put on the spot by a consultant/attending or lecturer.

  • Overcomplicating can cause you to trip up.
  • Overcomplicating can cause you to perform worse in your practical exams
  • Overcomplicating makes you waste unnecessary brain bandwidth to understand the key points.
Communication with colleagues and patients

The Feynman technique will come into play very nicely when it comes to PACES/OSCES/practical examinations, where conveying medical concepts simply is key.

Also, as a doctor, you’re going to need to regularly explain concepts without using medical jargon to most of your patients +/- specific colleagues.

🎓Using the Feynman technique at medical school


The principles of the Feynman technique will no-doubt help you in understanding new concepts. I recommend using it to cement knowledge when you come across new content in lectures and your further reading.

The purpose of the Feynman technique is simplicity. There are plenty of facets of medical concepts that can be made simpler, including:

  • Mechanisms of action of drugs
  • Pathogenesis of disease
  • Normal physiology
  • Aetiology of disease
  • And many more

How does it work? I’ll give you a 5-step summary in just a moment. But lets take my bilirubin metabolism example. In your head right now, try tell me how bilirubin is metabolised as simply and succinctly as possible…

By amending for simplicity, The Feynman technique can change this…

Bilirubin is a metabolic by-product of heme in haemoglobin. After sequential redox reactions, bilirubin is conjugated to glucuronic acid by UDP glucuronyl transferase in hepatocytes to conjugated bilirubin and excreted into bile cannaliculi via transporter proteins. Further enzymatic modifications in the bowel metabolises bilirubin to stercobilinogen which is predominately excreted in stool, whereas a small proportion is converted to urobilinogen and excreted in the urine.

…to this…

Blood is broken down into bilirubin. In the liver it sticks to glucuronic acid, marking it for removal. It’s then further broken down in the gut. Most is removed in stool (which makes faeces brown) and a little bit is changed to a form that is more wet, so it can be removed in the urine.

Simplicity is the key to understanding.

🖐️A five-step process on mastering the Feynman technique in medical school


Step 1: Identify a difficult concept

Such content comes in a couple of forms:

The enemies you know: Those concepts that you know you find difficult.

The enemies you don’t know: Like my opening anecdote, you may think you think you know, but you actually don’t (spoiler alert: this is where the last step comes in).

Step 2: Note down your summary or say it out loud, as simply as possible.

Start off by attempting to summarise the concept as simply as you can. You may say it in your head, or say it out loud (if socially acceptable) as if someone’s asked you to explain it. When you’ve had a couple of stabs, attempt to write it down.

Step 3: Make it EVEN simpler

Make it as simple as possible – so simple that you could explain it to your hard-of-hearing grandmother or a small child. This is why writing it down is useful, you can swap and replace your terms to make your definition succinct. Remove unnecessary jargon and make the terms simple. This is where you find out if you truly understand what you’re talking about. Are you struggling? Are you getting frustrated? Yes? good – you’re making progress.

Step 4: Summarise

Feynman’s practice of summarizing and condensing is likely to help you better remember what you’ve learned. Of course, you’ll still need to remember the semantics (the niche facts and figures), but this exercise should prime you for simpler recall.

Step 5: Make it a habit!

Each time you learn a new piece of content, or have digested a text-heavy paragraph, try to summarise the key learning points in your own head. The more times you do it, the more it will become second nature.

🙌Conclusion


The Feynman technique can help you PROVE to yourself that you do in fact understand medical terminology and that you’re not just skimming complex terminology.

Remember, the Feynman Technique is a powerful tool that can be used to increase your recall of information. So, if you’re struggling with any content, slow down and try to explain it to a 12-year old.

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I hope this helps!

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