Psychology is seen as a “soft” subject by many practitioners of medicine. In comparison to pharmacology, surgery, emergency medicine, and many other fields, it is relatively intangible. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter. This article asks: why is psychology important for medicine?

Since we at Brainscape are the developers of the world's most effective flashcard app for medical and nursing students, we've worked with hundreds of thousands of users in the medical and nursing professions all over the world. We know what's important to know for any medical student -- including the role of psychology.

[Check out our article about the must-have habit for medical students]

Plus, we've already observed how important psychology is for learning effectively. The learning algorithm behind our flashcards app is rooted in research from psychology and cognitive science.

Now, back to business.

Psychology, as a field of its own, is a real branch of medicine based on evidence and peer-reviewed research. It uses the scientific method like every other branch of medical science to learn about the various afflictions of our species and how to alleviate or heal them.

It’s also a field that has close linkages to the “harder” fields of medicine. The truth is, there is an intimate link between a person’s mental state and their physical health. In many cases, the two areas—the mind and the body—are inseparable for the purposes of diagnosis, treatment, and healing.

Psychology in medicine

So, why is psychology important for medicine? This question hasn't been asked enough. Part of this may be due to the difference between psychologists and psychiatrists.

The suffix “-iatry” refers to medical treatment, and as such, psychiatrists are medical doctors who have been through medical school and often practice in a hospital setting. Psychologists, on the other hand, don’t have this same type of training and often practice out of clinics or small practices. Psychologists are unable to prescribe drugs (in most jurisdictions), and thus may be seen as “less serious” than doctors and psychiatrists.

In the past, the negative perceptions of psychology within the medical establishment have hindered the spread of vital psychological training. But increasingly, medical schools are recognizing the importance of training future medical practitioners on psychological issues.

Using psychology in a normal medical practice

In a primary care setting, these skills are critical. Smoking, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders and obesity, depression, schizophrenia, mental disabilities, and the interactions of all these psychological issues are profoundly important for understanding and treating health issues in the general population.

Even specialists would do well to have a basic understanding of psychology and common psychiatric disorders. Due to the low importance put on these issues in the past, it’s likely that many patients who end up at specialists for one reason or another may have underlying, undiagnosed psychological conditions that are contributing to their health issues.

Preventative care

Perhaps one of the reasons that psychology has received short shrift in the past is the preventative nature of much psychiatric care. Medical doctors, more often than not, may only see psychiatric patients whose issues have progressed to causing harm to the body or serious disruption to normal functioning.

But preventative care—including psychological evaluation and treatment—is a priority for medical doctors as well. Patients provided with preventative care have better health outcomes with lower costs and less risk of complications and ongoing issues. Just because the issue is psychological does not mean preventative care is any less possible.

Fundamentals of psychology

For medical practitioners of all sorts, one critical issue is doctor-patient communication: how the transmission of potentially life-changing medical knowledge can best be handled. Even in low-stakes situations, understanding the psychology of a patient can provide key insights into the best motivations and methods for promoting their positive health. This is part of the bedside manner, and it’s generally an under-appreciated part of the field. Good communication skills are essential for medicine, and understanding psychology can truly help develop this talent.

Medicine using a body-mind approach

There's one thing you should takeaway from this article: medicine and psychology go hand in hand. Medical professionals, students, and all people who are interested in psychology and psychiatry would do well to study the field.

And because there is so much to know about psychology, the best medical students tend to be the ones who study it the most efficiently so they can save precious time to focus on the more "medical" parts of their studies. This is where Brainscape's adaptive flashcards app comes in.

Even if you’re just studying for the MCAT before medical school, Brainscape can help you expand your learning and understanding our psychology flashcards. Just do a flashcard round in between your medical studying! We also have flashcards for GRE Psychology, AP Psychology, and even Psychology 101 for most introductory psych classes.

So get up to speed on your psych studies, and you'll be better poised to improve your eventual bedside manner, placebo effect radar, and other important people skills necessary to excel as a doctor!