What Is Clinical Physiology?

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  • Originally Written By: Daniel Liden
  • Revised By: C. Mitchell
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 20 November 2015
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Clinical physiology is the study of human physiology as it relates to medical practice. Human physiology, in turn, is the study of the physical, mechanical, and biochemical aspects of humans; the field is very broad, and there are usually a lot of ways physicians and specialists can be involved enough in the discipline to consider themselves physiologists. On the clinical side, though, the work is almost always related directly to practice. Many doctors study the clinical aspects of physiology to understand and repair various functions in the human body, typically by organizing tests and working to diagnose problems. Others work running trials to come up with more effective drugs and pharmaceutical treatments for specific conditions based on how the body reacts. More than anything else, the clinical arm of this science is dedicated to direct patient care, whether through examination and rehabilitation or therapy and the creation of treatment plans.

A Broad Perspective on Physiology

Physiology concerns almost all of the ways in which the human body works, and as such it applies to many if not most things that physicians in all disciplines do on a daily basis. For example, doctors with orthopedic specialties apply their knowledge of physiology to problems concerning the effects of backpacks on the backs of children. They also focus on intramuscular pressure and on movement in reduced gravity. Physiology is not just related to muscles and bones, though; physicians of all specialties must have some knowledge of the field.


Often, students begin learning about physiology in high school anatomy or biology courses. The courses are related, but physiology is different from anatomy in that it focuses on functions and processes more than on design and organization. College biology and pre-medical courses cover general physiology with greater depth, and medical schools impart in-depth knowledge of human physiology. Clinically-focused physiology courses are often specialized based on the system of the body they involve. Examples include cardiac physiology and respiratory physiology.

Physiology is a massive and diverse field of study that branches naturally into and overlaps with a range of other related disciplines, including biochemistry, biophysics, and pharmacology. Clinical physiology combines all of these for actual medical applications. When medical specialists apply their general physiology knowledge to the treatment of patients, they are practicing clinical physiology.

Trademarks of a “Clinical” Discipline

Most medical disciplines can be broadly categorized into two branches, namely clinical and research. The research side normally focuses on compiling data and working to synthesize results from complex calculations and studies conducted over time. Research is really important to medical advancements, and most researchers start out as clinical practitioners in order to gain a mastery of the field and its processes.

Clinical disciplines are characterized first and foremost by their relationship to the patient. Their primary location, as their name might suggest, is the clinic; doctors learn and practice this science in real time with real people, and learn from what they see. This is particularly important in physiology, where the study of how the body works together is nowhere better learned than directly from patients with various complaints, ailments, and injuries.

Influencing Patient Care

Practitioners in this discipline are usually most involved in running diagnostic tests and helping figure out what’s wrong with patients who present with certain complaints or symptoms. They often organize blood tests, tissue biopsies, and electrocardiograms and stress tests to evaluate heart function and relative strength. They will then analyze all of the results together to put a composite together of a person’s health overall.

Role in Drug Development

Drug development is another common place to find experts in clinical physiology. Doctors and other medical practitioners rely heavily on physiological knowledge, as they need to understand the reactions between systems of the human body and the medications they develop and they need to know what effects the sedatives, steroids, and other chemicals they give patients will have. Knowledge of the endocrine system, the body's chemical message system, is also at the core of drug development for the treatment of everything from mental illnesses to sexual performance.


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Post 4

Clinical physiology is also a medical specialty in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. There are articles online about it.

Post 3

@Anna32 - If you think that the knowledge needed in human clinical physiology is vast, just think about the knowledge required in clinical anatomy and physiology for veterinary technicians! They have to know everything about the inner workings of animal bodies from a broad range of species. Veterinarians don't get as much respect as physicians in general because they work with pets, but when you think about it, they really do have to know a whole lot more to get the job.

Post 2

I would be interested to know how clinical physiology and clinical psychology relate to one another. If all the systems of the body relate to one another as the article suggests, would it not make sense that this would include the functions of the mind as well?

The placebo effect, for example, shows that the body can heal itself if a person believes a treatment will work. So given that, do clinical physiology courses also include instruction in psychology and how does a physician learn to reconcile the two?

Post 1

I have to tip my hat to any clinical physiologist. Think about it: the article says basically they have to know everything about everything concerning how the body works and interacts together.

That's a whole lot of knowledge! I think that's the biggest reason, too, why it is so important to have specialists in different fields. There is no way that any one doctor would be able to obtain a deep working knowledge of every single thing that clinical physiology entails.

They may have a basic understanding from med school, but to actually be able to retain all of that information would be nothing short of miraculous.

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