How to become a medical specialist in the Philippines
26 October 2021
Joy Dela Cruz

Becoming a doctor is no easy feat. The process involves years of hard work, discipline, and sacrifice—you’ll be giving up sleep, time with friends and family, and most of your twenties. But if you’re tough enough, you might just make it. Here’s a brief overview of the path to becoming a clinical specialist in the Philippines.

Nowadays, the optimal senior high school strand for a career in healthcare is Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). With STEM, you’ll be taking subjects like biology, physics and chemistry, which are excellent introductions to your future career. Taking STEM isn’t a requirement, but it will give you a leg up on your peers.

After high school, there are two paths toward a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. The standard path is pursuing a college degree before medical school. This can be any four-year course leading to a bachelor’s degree.

While any degree will do, most people opt for “traditional” pre-med courses like biology, nursing, medical technology, physical therapy, and psychology. If you didn’t take a pre-med course in college, some med schools might require you to take extra units in science and mathematics subjects.

The faster option is to get into a program which integrates undergraduate studies and an MD degree in one, and offer direct entry to their respective med schools. Among such programs are the University of the Philippines’ (UP) seven-year Intarmed Program and the University of Santo Tomas’ (UST) six-year LEAPMed program. These programs are not only for those who are absolutely certain they want to pursue a medical degree, but are also highly selective and competitive. The Intarmed program, for example, considers only the top 100 applicants from the tens of thousands that apply to UP every year.

Passing the National Medical Admission Test (NMAT), administered twice a year, is key to getting into med school. Most med schools require a certain cut-off grade: UP, for example, only accepts students whose scores are above the 90th percentile, and UST’s cut-off is at the 85th percentile.

The standard MD degree in the Philippines is a five-year program. The first three years are mostly spent in the classroom, a combination of lectures and laboratory sessions. The fourth year is dedicated to clerkship, which you will spend in hospitals. You will be rotated around different hospital departments, spending several weeks to two months in each field.

After four years, you will have earned your MD diploma. At this point, you will spend one more year as an intern in a hospital. You will be supervised during this period, while receiving more (hands-on) training in the various specialties.

With your medical degree and your completed internship hours, you must now take the physician licensure exam (or the “board exam”) in order to work as a doctor. Most med students have between two and six months to review for the exam, depending on when they take it (it is administered twice a year). The exam covers basic sciences (e.g. anatomy, physiology, biochemistry) and clinical sciences like pediatrics, surgery, and internal medicine. You will need an average exam rating of 75 percent to pass.

After getting your license, you can now apply for a residency training program in a specific hospital. Medical residents will spend at least three years working at a hospital, depending on the specialization they choose. To become a dermatologist, for example, you will need three years, but surgeons spend at least five.

Then, after residency, you can opt to go for a subspecialty (or what many refer to as “fellowship training”). This will take another minimum of two years. Examples of subspecialties are cardiology, endocrinology, and gastroenterology. And, after completing residency and fellowship, you will also be required to take specialty exams for each stage.

Johann Ulrik Go/ CONTRIBUTED