Purpose: Problem-based learning (PBL) cases tell a story of a medical encounter; however, the version of the story is typically very biomedical in focus. The patient and her or his experience of the situation are rarely the focus of the case despite a prevalent discourse of patient-centeredness in contemporary medical education. This report describes a qualitative study that explored the question, "How does PBL teach medical students about what matters in medicine?"
Method: The qualitative study, culminating in 2008, involved three data collection strategies: (1) a discourse analysis of a set of PBL cases from 2005 to 2006, (2) observation of a PBL tutorial group, and (3) semistructured, in-depth, open-ended interviews with medical educators and medical students.
Results: In this report, using data gathered from 67 PBL cases, 26 hours of observation, and 14 interviews, the author describes six specific ways in which PBL cases-if not thoughtfully conceptualized and authored-can serve to overlook social considerations, thereby undermining a patient-centered approach. These comprise the detective case, the shape-shifting patient, the voiceless PBL person, the joke name, the disembodied PBL person, and the stereotypical PBL person.
Conclusions: PBL cases constitute an important component of undergraduate medical education. Thoughtful authoring of PBL cases has the potential to reinforce, rather than undermine, principles of patient-centeredness.