Background: Early patient contacts are considered important in medical education.
Aims: We studied the influence of a real patient trigger on study motivation and learning in problem-based study groups of first-year medical and dentistry students.
Methods: 156 eligible students were allocated into 17 groups. Six randomly selected groups received both the real patient and paper trigger, and 11 groups received only the paper trigger. The immediate and later effects of the trigger were assessed with qualitative and quantitative questionnaires and exam scores. The tutors answered questionnaires concerning learning outcomes.
Results: The students reported that the real patient trigger significantly improved their study motivation, understanding of the learning objectives and confidence in future patient encounters. The real patient trigger was considered significantly more interesting than the paper case. No statistically significant difference was observed in the exam scores. The tutors observed that groups with poor previous performance gained better results in study sessions.
Conclusions: Real patient triggers motivate students to learn basic medical sciences. Ways to present real patients to students should be considered in medical curricula from early on.