How to Study Pharmacology

Are you having trouble selecting the best medicine for your patient? Is it getting difficult to recall all the drugs along with their various dosages and frequencies? How do you even order all these medications? What happens if you pair one drug with another?
Bianca Villanueva


October 2, 2023

Table of Contents

What is Pharmacology? It’s the study of how drugs interact with the body and how the body responds to the drug.

It sounds complicated and, in some ways, it is. As a doctor, you’ll be qualified to prescribe these medications to patients so, even though it’s a tough course, mastering pharmacology is a must.

So how are you supposed to pass pharmacology and memorize all those mechanisms, doses, and frequencies? Well, it’s difficult and there’s no perfect way to learn Pharmacology. So, we have some pharmacology study tips to help you if you feel stuck in the sea of medications that all look the same.

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#1 – Know your Physiology

One of the most common questions asked in Pharmacology is the mechanism of action (MOA) of a drug. In other words, what does the drug do to your body? There are many ways to memorize the MOA of each drug, but the most effective way is to have a firm foundation in physiology.

The body has many receptors. In physiology, you’ll learn what each receptor does to the various organs. While it’s one thing to know the target receptor of a drug, it’s another to know what happens when it’s either activated or inhibited.

For example, beta receptors play a role in your sympathetic nervous system which, in turn, affects various systems of your body. Why is that important to know?

Beta blockers are used for more than vasodilation. When you block your sympathetic nervous system through beta blockers, you block it for other organs apart from the vessels. This is why you need to use selective beta blockers for patients with asthma, because their non-selective side effect is bronchoconstriction, which can worsen asthma. So knowing how the different parts of the body are affected by a drug can tell you not only its MOA, but also its potential side effects and contraindications.

#2 – Study your Patients

Your patients are your best source of learning.

Of course you’re there to help them, but they’re also there to help you! As you interact and manage patients, you’ll come across all kinds of medications that they have taken, are taking, and will take.

Invest yourself in the stories of your patients. What drugs are they taking? Why are these their medications? Why did the attending discontinue a particular drug? What are possible alternatives to the patient’s current meds?

Always try to answer those questions when reading your patient’s history and course. It may look like a list of drugs at first, but in the grand scheme of things, they’re part of a story, and that makes them important.

Also, it’s not just your patients you can learn from. When I had my clinic and pharmacy rotations, I would go around the pharmacy, going through the inventory. There, I would remember what drug preparations are available for my patients, and the dosages that they come in. So, make the most out of your rotations!

#3 – Study by Class

Drugs are divided into classes. These classes are usually determined by their purpose.

  • Antimuscarinics
  • Alpha-blockers
  • Antihistamines
  • Serotonin-Uptake Receptor Inhibitors
  • …and the list goes on.

Most drug classes can point you towards the mode of action of a drug. The best way to learn them is to organize them by flowcharts, mapping, and other ways to organize visual information. Once you have the classifications down, most of the modes of action are easy to determine.

Another thing you should study within these drug classes are the suffixes the medications use.

For example, ACE inhibitors have -pril at the ends of their names (Captopril, Enalopril, etc.) while ARBS have -sartan at the ends of theirs (Irbesartan, Losartan, etc.). However, not all medications of the same class will have the same suffixes, so be careful.

#4 – Use Visual Cues

As a visual learner, using visual cues has worked best for me. It’s easy for short-term memorization and it even helps you recall those tougher drug names and complicated modes of action. You can create a story in your head or a picture of a situation, if that helps you remember better. This can work for memorizing which drugs are in which class, their side effects, or what makes them particularly special.

For example, a common picture I have in my head of organophosphate toxicity is a person excreting everything out of any orifice they have. Increased salivation, lacrimation, diarrhea, vomiting, urination, etc. It sounds gross, but the weirder it is, the more memorable!

#5 – Prioritize the First Line Drugs

Of course, what you learn in pharmacology is useless when you don’t know how to apply it in practice. Every country has different standards of treatment, and even hospitals have their own biograms that can change your first line of antibiotics. You need to know which drugs should be at the forefront of your mind when you hear a particular disease.

For example, when you’re considering a patient with pneumonia, you want to think of the most common microbe, which is Streptococcus pneumoniae. So even without waiting for the cultures, you can start antibiotics that cover Gram positive bacteria. As such, that would make your first line choice one of the Penicillins, maybe Amoxicillin or Ampicillin, depending on your standard practices and the specific characteristics of  your patient.

Since these are the type of drugs you’ll be prescribing the most often, you need to know their side effects and drug-to-drug interactions. So even if you forget the effects of the other drugs, in practice, you’ll at least remember the ones that you’ll be prescribing to most of your patients.

#6 – Mnemonics

The use of mnemonics has helped medical students survive for a long time. We have mnemonics for pretty much anything that needs to be remembered because it’s good for short term memory. However, it’s not very effective in the long-run as many mnemonics can be forgotten and they’re not memorable for every student.

As such, I wouldn’t always recommend this method, especially when it’s more effective to just learn them through physiology.

However, some mnemonics do stick, particularly those you’ve made yourself or those that make sense for what they’re used for. For example, common tocolytics can be remembered through the mnemonic “It’s Not My Time,” referring to Indomethacin, Nifedipine, Magnesium Sulfate, and Terbutaline. You would remember that these are tocolytics because it’s not the uterus’ time yet to contract!

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