Objective: To review the reported reliability (reproducibility, inter-examiner agreement) and validity (sensitivity, specificity and likelihood ratios) of respiratory physical examination (PE) signs, and suggest an approach to teaching these signs to medical students.
Methods: Review of the literature. We searched Paper Chase between 1966 and June 2009 to identify and evaluate published studies on the diagnostic accuracy of respiratory PE signs.
Results: Most studies have reported low to fair reliability and sensitivity values. However, some studies have found high specificites for selected PE signs. None of the studies that we reviewed adhered to all of the STARD criteria for reporting diagnostic accuracy.
Conclusions: Possible flaws in study designs may have led to underestimates of the observed diagnostic accuracy of respiratory PE signs. The reported poor reliabilities may have been due to differences in the PE skills of the participating examiners, while the sensitivities may have been confounded by variations in the severity of the diseases of the participating patients. IMPLICATION FOR PRACTICE AND MEDICAL EDUCATION: Pending the results of properly controlled studies, the reported poor reliability and sensitivity of most respiratory PE signs do not necessarily detract from their clinical utility. Therefore, we believe that a meticulously performed respiratory PE, which aims to explore a diagnostic hypothesis, as opposed to a PE that aims to detect a disease in an asymptomatic person, remains a cornerstone of clinical practice. We propose teaching the respiratory PE signs according to their importance, beginning with signs of life-threatening conditions and those that have been reported to have a high specificity, and ending with signs that are "nice to know," but are no longer employed because of the availability of more easily performed tests.