Background: Traditional didactic continuing education is relatively ineffective in improving physicians' clinical skills. We hypothesized that a centralized course including small group workshops utilizing standardized patients could improve clinical skills for a reasonable cost.
Methods: We designed a 5-h course aimed at improving physicians' counseling skills (re: screening mammography) and clinical breast exam (CBE) skills. The course included lectures, demonstrations, and small group skills sessions utilizing standardized patients and was offered to 156 typical community-based primary care physicians. Pre- and postcourse evaluation included in-office assessments of physician CBE and counseling performance by standardized patients and a written test of knowledge and attitudes.
Results: A total of 54.5% of eligible physicians participated. They improved modestly in only one of three areas of counseling skills measured (providing counseling appropriate to the patient's readiness to accept mammography, P = 0.01). The overall CBE score increased substantially from 24.8 to 34.7 (P < 0.0001). Knowledge in all areas measured and confidence in counseling patients also increased. The basic course cost $202 per physician trained.
Conclusions: Most community-based primary care physicians may find small group training and in-office evaluation involving standardized patients acceptable. Such training may be more effective in improving physical exam skills than complex communication skills.