How to study pharmacology effectively

How To Study Pharmacology Effectively [Full Breakdown]

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One of the toughest classes in med school is pharmacology. But we’re going to break down a few quick things you can do to make studying pharmacology a lot easier. Here’s how to study Pharmacology effectively.

Let’s get into it!

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Forest And Trees Approach

Technique number one is to have both a forest and a tree approach. Often, what makes pharmacology so overwhelming is that there’s so much information but also so many individual categories you have to remember.

For example, for each medication, you have to remember the name, the brand names, any dosing, how the medication works, who you use it for, side effects, and so many other factors.

But to understand pharmacology well, you have to understand both the individual facts as well as the big picture. And that’s why one of my favorite ways to master pharmacology is to have a resource that can help you both master the tidbits as well as see everything together.

And one of my favorite resources to recommend is Picmonic. Picmonic has hundreds and thousands of videos for every aspect of your medical journey.

Something I really appreciate about Picmonic is they separate the lessons based on the topic.

So for example, if I’m learning about pharmacology within cardiology itself, I can easily click on cardiology. If we’re going learn about medication to lower lipids or cholesterol, then I can watch a video about statins.

Picmonic pharmacology cardiology

Picmonic Statins

From personal experience as an internal medicine doctor, there are a lot of statins and a lot of things to remember about statins. But the nice thing about Picmonic is it talks about statins within a very short video, as it’s only 1 minute and 30 seconds.

And then as you go through this video, it discusses the lesson in a story form where each aspect of the video is associated with a very fun and memorable image that represents a concept or term.

For example, here we have this image of a liver with this weird-looking sludge representing hepatotoxicity. And you have to remember that statins do sometimes cause liver damage and it’s something you have to keep in mind for your patients.

Picmonic hepatotoxicity

And as I go further into the video, more memorable images are included and they tell a story about statins that you can easily remember later.

Picmonic statins

Each of these images represents the trees or the individual details about a specific medication. But the nice thing about Picmonic is that now you can go ahead and try to remember the entire picture and story.

For example, using the review function, I can review what each image is.

In addition, I can quiz myself and try to see if I can answer the questions. I can do this with or without the images.

Picmonic quiz

And the last tidbit or feature that I like to share is that once you watch a video and you feel like it’s something that you’ve added to your review schedule, you can actually just add it to your own individual playlist.

Picmonic add to playlist

So if I am going through cardiology, I could add it to my cardiology playlist. If I am using it for Step 1, I could add it to my Step 1 playlist. I can also create a new playlist like pharmacology.

Then I have a big video database with all the quiz questions from every video I’ve already watched. So every time I watched a new one, I go ahead and add it to the playlist.

Again, we are using the forest and trees approach. That’s having an all-in-one resource that can help you find individual details, but also seeing all of them together. That’s super helpful.

Picmonic is one of my favorite resources to recommend. If you’re interested, click this link to start Picmonic and get 20% discount.

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Use Spaced Repetition Predictably

Spaced repetition is something I cover a lot in this blog. One of my favorite techniques on how to study pharmacology effectively is by using Anki.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all of your pharmacology topics are in one place?

You can use a big pre-made Anki deck. There are plenty that you can find. If you Google “pharmacology anki deck”, you will find one that will likely work for you.

google pharmacology anki deck

So if you’re in nursing school, in PA school, or maybe you are going to be a dentist, you can find something.

One thing I recommend to students is to find pre-made decks that they really enjoy and then find the relevant pharmacology deck either within the specific subject or look for an entire deck and try to move it out and make it a big deck.

Anki pharmacology deck

So for example, here I have an actual individual pre-made pharmacology deck. Every morning, I’m going to do a predictable schedule of doing this for 10 to 15 minutes.

Often, students get overwhelmed by the number of cards that are in any one of these pre-made decks. A pre-made deck can have, let’s say, 4,000 cards. So that’s a lot of cards!

But the goal is not to focus on getting through all the 4,000. Your goal is to focus on doing a specific number of cards a day or a specific amount of time each day to make your pharmacology knowledge a little bit better.

So let’s say, I’m going to commit to 10 to 15 minutes in the morning, 10 to 15 minutes after lunch, and that will be my pharmacology review.

You can make your own schedule. You can use a timer and do as much as you can within the time frame. You do not have to focus too much on what Anki is recommending. Just go ahead and do as many cards as possible.

For example, here’s the first card on levothyroxine used for the thyroid. And I can just continue to answer the cards for 15 minutes.

Anki sample card levothyroxine

Depending on your premade cards and deck, you may have a lot more stratification that you can use to actually be able to study a specific topic.

You can click on Custom Study and, let’s say, review all the cards within a certain tag.

Anki custom study

And then you can do any cards that are related to pharmacology and cardiology. It’s going to show me the cards that are acceptable for that tag.

sample Anki cards 1

Sample anki cards 2

If you’re new to Anki, or if you gave it a shot in the past and it just hasn’t quite worked out, make sure you check out this article: How To Use Anki In Medical School

It’s a full step-by-step walkthrough where I go all the way from the basics to advanced techniques. These are the techniques that I used to help me go from 10 hours to 5 hours of studying in medical school. So make sure you check out this article.

I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback from people that have read the article and its video on YouTube. So again, even if you’ve given Anki a shot and you haven’t been able to quite figure it out, make sure you check out this article and see if it helps you on pharmacology or any related topic in your medical journey.

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Hit List Method

Sometimes the hardest thing about pharmacology is that I would get overwhelmed by the list of medications I had to know by the next quiz or test. I would get paralyzed and anxious before actually doing anything.

One thing that I started doing early in medical school is creating a Word doc of all the medications that I needed to know. I would put the category as one bullet point and then all the fair medications.

For example, if I’m in the respiratory tract, I’ll have inhalers as one category and then make an extensive list of the next 10 to 15 medications that I would need to know.

If I needed to know something about pulmonary hypertension, I would add that as another category. And then I’ll list all of the fair medications that came from my slides, quiz questions, etc.

Here is a quick example of what a hit list may look like for a pharmacology block.

How to study pharmacology hit list method

You may have some of the initial medications that you’re learning. And you can just add new ones to your list.

When you study, while it’s overwhelming to see all these medications that you may not be familiar with, the next goal is to come up with what you want to know about each one.

For example, you may want to know the mechanism of action or the MOA, who to use it for, and the common side effects.

how to study pharmacology hit list with bullet points

Using this as a structure, you can come up with those three bullet points for the next three to four medications or whatever you can do in the next 20 to 30 minutes.

You can use your slides, lectures, etc, to fill these. So while you’re in the lecture, you can just add to this section, or after class, you can fill them in accordingly.

But the nice thing about this is that now you are just focused on the next thing on the list on a time basis. So instead of worrying about the eight medications you’re left to do, you’re just going to move on to the next one and try to master the next thing on the checklist.

Another thing is that I can review without looking at the answer. For example, I could make all the text white, so then it just disappears.

how to study pharmacology hit list review

I could have a blank piece of paper and try to talk out the answers. Do I know the MOA? Do I know who to give it to? Do I know the side effects? And when I’m done, I can just hit control Z or make the text all black to show the answer.

It’s a nice way to collect all the information in one place and then use it for quizzing yourself. And once you have mastered one part, then you can just change the color or highlight, let’s say green, and then move on to the next.

how to study pharmacology hit list highlight

Or if you are struggling with one category, you can highlight it in red. This will tell you that when you come back to your review, you have to start with the red ones.

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Second Brain Method

Another technique on how to study pharmacology effectively is something called the second brain method.

To quickly explain, the second brain means that instead of trying to count on your brain to hold onto all the information, collect them into a nice database and then come back to it periodically. You can continue to add to it and review.

how to study pharmacology second brain

For example, here I have a database that I made for one of my coaching students, somebody who’s going into residency and wants to master everything needed for internal medicine.

Instead of forcing themselves to learn medications that they haven’t prescribed yet and haven’t actually interacted with, they can use this database to retain the information.

So maybe you’re in a setting where you are treating something like hyponatremia, it’s nice to have a database where now you can learn about hyponatremia. You can add all of the relevant information and any types of pictures or things that you find about it.

Then when you’re asking yourself, what do I use to treat hyponatremia? You’re going to come across medications, dosage, prescriptions, and side effects, that are going to be relevant to that category. You can add the medications or treatments like salt tabs, Lasix, and water restriction.

I can then create a separate folder for things like hypotension or hypertension. And then add specific medications as you’re learning about them. It’s much more natural to use in pharmacology.

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So if you’re somebody who is in nursing school, PA school, or medical school, and you’re learning about both the disease and the treatment, make it a very natural transition where you’re learning about the disease and then the actual medications to treat it. So then you will have connected the dots instead of trying to learn hypertension medications away from hypertension itself.

What makes the second brain method so effective is that the next time you come across a medication and there’s a side effect you didn’t know about or you didn’t write the dosage the last time you learned it, then you can easily add it in your database.

This database I made for my students is essentially a checklist. So they have a schedule and every time they learn something, they would go ahead and click the checkbox.

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Learning Through Mistakes

My favorite way of learning pharmacology is simply learning through mistakes.

Often as a full-time physician, although I don’t make mistakes by prescribing the wrong medication, I realize that there is a better option or a patient has a side effect that I wasn’t aware of. I realize that it’s related to a medication they have been taking, say, for the last two weeks. That’s new information.

And as a student, one of the best ways you can learn through mistakes is by simply putting yourself in quizzing and questioning environments. Whether finding a question bank particular to the class you’re taking or using an all-in-one resource like Picmonic, there are tons out there that you guys can check out.

Make questioning a part of your daily routine. You can use the flashcards that we talked about earlier but also start to incorporate things like practice questions where you have a lot more benefit.

For example, when I do a practice question, not only do I have to figure out what disease they’re actually trying to tell me about, but then I get to ask myself what’s the treatment for it. So it’s a nice twofold way of connecting the forest and the trees all together in one place.

For all the students that I work with, particularly the ones that tell me they’re struggling in pharmacology, we make it a daily routine to do five questions. Maybe do two questions in the morning and then three questions when you come home. And then keep track of your mistakes while doing the rest of the things that we talked about.

In that way, the mastery of pharmacology is a lot more natural. You will feel like you know the tidbits. You will know when you don’t know something. And then you can use various different techniques to identify that and then come back to it on a predictable schedule.

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If you enjoyed this breakdown on how to study pharmacology effectively then you will also enjoy the following blog posts:

As always, thanks for being a part of my journey. Hopefully, I was a little help to you guys on yours.

Until the next one, my friend…



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