Purpose: To determine students' views about the strengths and weaknesses of real patient interactions as opposed to simulated patient (SP) interactions in the undergraduate medical curriculum in order to evaluate how their strengths can be optimally used and weaknesses remedied.
Method: Five focus-group interviews were conducted among fourth- and fifth-year medical students at Maastricht University in 2007, using a preestablished interview guide. The interviews were recorded, transcribed, and analyzed using qualitative methods.
Results: In general, the 38 participants considered real patient encounters more instructive and more authentic than SP encounters. However, students identified several strengths of SP encounters compared with real patient encounters. For example, SP interactions were helpful in preparing students for real patient interactions (particularly with regard to communication skills and self-confidence), in the teaching of "intimate" physical examination skills, such as gynecological examination skills, and in giving constructive feedback on communication skills. In contrast to what we had anticipated, taking a time-out was considered easier in real patient interactions.
Conclusions: Both real patient interactions and SP interactions are considered indispensable to undergraduate medical education. Each encounter has unique strengths and weaknesses from the perspectives of students. On the basis of strengths and weaknesses that were identified, suggestions were made for the use of real patients and SPs in undergraduate medical education.