Introduction: Increasingly medical students undertake clinical training in distributed learning environments. The driving factor for this is predominantly to address medical workforce shortages. In these environments students are often taught by private practitioners, residents, house staff and registrars, as well as faculty. Through a mix of short- and long-term preceptorships, clerkships and rotations, medical students are exposed to a wider range of preceptors, mentors and role models than has traditionally been the case. The aim of this systematic review was to understand if and how medical students' career choices are influenced by their interactions with preceptors.
Method: A search of Ovid Medline, Scopus, ISI Web of Science, PubMed, Eric and CIHNAL was undertaken. The search was structured around the key terms: Medical Student, Career Choice and Preceptor, and variants of these terms. Search limits were set to English-language publications between 1995 and 2010.
Results: A total of 36 articles met the selection criteria from the 533 citations sourced from the search. Required preceptorships as short as 3 weeks' duration influence the career choice of students when they rate the preceptor as a high quality teacher. Preceptors who are judged (by students) as high quality teachers have the greatest influence on student career choice by up to four-fold. When students judged a preceptor as being a negative role model, a poor teacher or lacking discipline specific knowledge they will turn away from that field. The positive influence of relationships between preceptors and students on career choice is strongest where there is continuity of preceptors, continuity of care, and continuity of patient interactions. The longer the duration of the preceptorship the greater the influence on student career choice, particularly in primary cares environments.
Conclusion: This review adds to the literature by identifying how differing components and combinations of components of a preceptorship influence medical student career choices. Multiple components of the preceptorship combined have a greater influence. In free choice, longitudinal integrated clerkships' duration of placement and continuity relationships with preceptors have the greatest influence on medical students in pursuing a primary care career. This information informs medical schools, curriculum designers and policy-makers in reforming medical education to address workforce shortages.