The informal curriculum of family medicine - what does it entail and how is it taught to residents? A systematic review

BMC Fam Pract. 2020 Mar 11;21(1):49. doi: 10.1186/s12875-020-01120-1.


Background: The informal curriculum is a seemingly well-explored concept in the realm of medical education. However, it is a concept with multiple definitions and the term "the hidden curriculum" is often used interchangeably. In short, they both refer to the implicit learning taking place outside the formal curriculum, encompassing both a trickling down effect of organizational values and attitudes passed on by a mentor or colleague. While the informal curriculum is a recurrent theme in medical education literature; it is seldom discussed in Family Medicine. As the informal curriculum is likely to be highly influential in the forming of future family practitioners, our aim was to explore the area further, with respect to the following: which elements of the informal curriculum are applicable in a Family Medicine context and what educational interventions for Family Medicine residents, visualizing the various educational elements of it, have been performed?

Methods: We conducted a systematic review comprising iterative literature searches and a narrative synthesis of the results.

Results: Twenty articles, published between 2000 and 2019, were included in the analysis which resulted in three partly interrelated themes comprising the informal curriculum in Family Medicine: gaining cultural competence, achieving medical professionalism and dealing with uncertainty. The themes on cultural competence and uncertainty seemed to be more contextual than professionalism, the latter being discussed in relation to the informal curriculum across other medical disciplines as well. Formalized training for Family Medicine residents in aspects of the informal curriculum appeared to be lacking, and in general, the quality of the few interventional studies found was low.

Conclusions: Important aspects of being a family practitioner, such as cultural competence and dealing with uncertainty, are learned through a context-dependent informal curriculum. In order to ensure a more uniform base for all residents and to reduce the impact of the individual supervisor's preferences, complementary formalized training would be beneficial. However, to date there are too few studies published to conclude how to best teach the informal curriculum.

Trial registration: The systematic review was registered with Prospero; registration number CRD42018104819.

Keywords: Family medicine; General practice; Informal/hidden curriculum; Post-graduate education.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Curriculum*
  • Education, Medical / methods*
  • Family Practice / education*
  • Humans
  • Internship and Residency / methods
  • Teaching*