Approaches to Teaching the Physical Exam to Preclerkship Medical Students: Results of a National Survey

Acad Med. 2019 Jan;94(1):129-134. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000002433.


Purpose: To assess current approaches to teaching the physical exam to preclerkship students at U.S. medical schools.

Method: The Directors of Clinical Skills Courses developed a 49-question survey addressing the approach, pedagogical methods, and assessment methods of preclerkship physical exam curricula. The survey was administered to all 141 Liaison Committee on Medical Education-accredited U.S. medical schools in October 2015. Results were aggregated across schools, and survey weights were used to adjust for response rate and school size.

Results: One hundred six medical schools (75%) responded. Seventy-nine percent of schools (84) began teaching the physical exam within the first two months of medical school. Fifty-six percent of schools (59) employed both a "head-to-toe" comprehensive approach and a clinical reasoning approach. Twenty-three percent (24) taught a portion of the physical exam interprofessionally. Videos, online modules, and simulators were used widely, and 39% of schools (41) used bedside ultrasonography. Schools reported a median of 4 formative assessments and 3 summative assessments, with 16% of schools (17) using criterion-based standard-setting methods for physical exam assessments. Results did not vary significantly by school size.

Conclusions: There was wide variation in how medical schools taught the physical exam to preclerkship students. Common pedagogical approaches included early initiation of physical exam instruction, use of technology, and methods that support clinical reasoning and competency-based medical education. Approaches used by a minority of schools included interprofessional education, ultrasound, and criterion-based standard-setting methods for assessments. Opportunities abound for research into the optimal methods for teaching the physical exam.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Clinical Clerkship / methods*
  • Clinical Competence*
  • Competency-Based Education / organization & administration*
  • Curriculum*
  • Education, Medical / organization & administration*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Physical Examination / methods*
  • Schools, Medical / statistics & numerical data
  • Students, Medical / statistics & numerical data
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Teaching*
  • United States
  • Young Adult