Why are some medical courses 4, 4.5 or even 6 years in length instead of 5 years?

In this article we will discuss the different lengths of Medical school degree courses and why they are different. For reference most but not all non-medical undergraduate degrees e.g. History, Law, Media Studies, English Language etc. take 3 years to complete in the UK unless they also include an additional qualification on top of the degree e.g. a master’s degree or include a year of work experience as part of the course (these are sometimes called sandwich years or a year in industry). Degrees in dentistry or veterinary medicine also take 5 years to complete.

5 year medical degrees – This is the most common duration of a medical degree in the UK and most medical students will graduate after studying Medicine for 5 years. Some five year courses offer the option for students to spend an extra year, usually after the 1st, 2nd or 3rd year to study and gain an additional degree making the course 6 years for them. Some medical schools require students to take an additional qualification and this makes them automatically 6 year courses not 5 year courses. See the 6 year option below for further information.

4 year medical degrees – Many medical schools offer this option. These courses are for people who have completed an undergraduate degree or in a few instances for people who have completed the first year of another science degree. They are not for people with only GCSEs and A-levels. Most four year courses have an introductory period where graduates are taught together and then they enter directly into some point of the universities typical non graduate 5 year or 6 year medical course.

For example the University of Nottingham offers an accelerated 4 year graduate entry course. The graduates follow their own syllabus for 18 months then join part way into the normal 5 year programme. The point where the graduates join the 5 year degree is at the point in the 5 year course where the 5 year students transition from mainly non-clinical studies to clinical studies (i.e. they are moving from being university based to being based at teaching hospitals) so it is a very natural point to make this unification of the course as everyone is making a transition to this new clinical phase at the same time. It also provides excellent social opportunities for all the students.

Another example is the University of Oxford. They offer a four year accelerated graduate entry course and also a 6 year course. They do not offer a 5 year course. The first two years of the accelerated graduate entry course are different to the typical six year course (there will still be large amounts of overlap) but the final two years are shared between the 4 year course and the 6 year course and everyone takes the same final exams. Again the graduates join the typical 6 medical degree at the stage when the 6 year medical students are transitioning from pre-clinical to clinical studies so it is a smooth and natural point for the graduate and non-graduate course to unify.

A slightly different example is for students who study a clinical sciences degree at the University of Bradford. They can at various points whilst studying for their degree, apply for direct entry into the 1st or 2nd year of Leeds Medical school. This is because both the first year of the clinical sciences degree at Bradford and the first year of the medical degree at Leeds are designed to be the same.

In a few other countries Medicine is a four year course. This is typically the case as in these countries Medicine is a post graduate course which means to study Medicine you will need to have already studied a typically 3 or 4 year degree first. America is an example of this structure. You can see our completely free guide to studying Medicine in America for more information.

4.5 year medical degree – This is very rare course length. The University of Buckingham is the first private medical school to open in the UK since the 1940’s. It offers this accelerated course length.

6 year medical degrees – There are three main reasons why a medical degree would be 6 years long instead of the typical 5 years that most non graduate entry medical degrees are:

Medicine with an additional qualification

Various medical schools such as Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College London; have 6 year course lengths as the course is structured in such a way that it leads to students graduating with a medical degree and also an additional qualification for example an undergraduate degree like a BSc. Note, many 5 year medical courses such as Manchester Medical School, Queen Mary, Imperial, Bristol; also give students the option to gain an additional qualification such as a BSc, or a masters in this same way. However, in these 5 year courses it is optional to take an extra year to do this in contrast to the 6 year courses such as Oxford, UCL, ICL etc. where it is a compulsory part of the course. In some 6 year medical courses graduates are exempt from having to do all 6 years. This can be done in some medical schools because in those types of courses such as in UCL, the additional BSc is gained during the third year. Graduates may be exempt from having to take the 3rd year and proceed directly from the 2nd year to the 4th year of the course. In medical schools such as Cambridge or Oxford this cannot be done as the course is not designed in such a way. Graduates can instead apply for the accelerated four year programmes.

Gaining an additional qualification either as an optional added year in a 5 year course or as part of a 6 year course has some advantages. A BSc would normally take 3 years to achieve but is only 1 year when done like this and is ideal for people who wish to pursue a research career or academic career or have a specialist interest. If you are able to choose the additional qualification and area then it can be done in an area of interest e.g. Global health, Management, Zoology, Medical Ethics, Psychology, Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering etc. It also gives you some additional points for applying to the foundation programme which is what medical graduates apply to in order choose the hospital they would like to work. However, this is only a small number of points and will provide only a small advantage which can easily be compensated for in other ways. Some people also enjoy the change from their Medical degree. Disadvantages include the extra year it will take before qualification, the potential lost earnings you could have made in that time and additional expenses incurred.

Medicine with preliminary/ foundation year

Several universities offer this type of degree and it is usually aimed at applicants with excellent grades but not in the correct science subjects needed to enter directly into a typical 5 year medical degree. The medical degree is not actually 6 years long it is 5 years long but before starting the typical 5 year medical degree the students will need to complete a foundation/preliminary year. This year typically focuses on teaching basic maths and sciences and successful completion means that they then enter typical 5 year Medical degree.

Medicine with a gateway year/Extended Medical degrees

This is a relatively new initiative to widen participation to Medicine but has strict criteria for eligibility. This is aimed at students with high potential and ability but whose socio-economic situations have presented a barrier to entry. For example students from very poor performing schools with low entry rates into university. The reason they are a year longer is because of two main possibilities. The first possibility is because like the above example of Medicine with a foundation year, the medical degree is actually 5 years long but before students enter the 5 year medical course they complete a gateway year designed to further develop knowledge of the sciences and maths. The second possibility is because the medical degree itself is stretched out so that Medicine can be taught in a more graduated way.

The length of any of the above 4, 5 or 6 year courses could be extended even further for example due to maternity leave, studying part time, illness, having to repeat a year due to failed exams etc.

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