Teaching the physical examination by context and by integrating hand-held ultrasound devices

Med Teach. 2020 Jun 12;1-7. doi: 10.1080/0142159X.2020.1772467. Online ahead of print.


Although practiced to this day, teaching the 'head-to-toe' physical examination (PE) does not appear to fully achieve its objective, and since the 1970s, there have been proposals to replace the traditional teaching of the head-to-toe examination by a selective PE aimed at testing diagnostic hypotheses; by a core PE to be supplemented by additional maneuvers as clinically indicated; and by limiting the number of PE maneuvers to be taught. The need to update the teaching of the PE is further indicated by the availability of hand-held pulse oximeters, spirometry and especially point of care ultrasound devices (PoCUS). This paper is a call to update the introduction of medical students into the PE by (a) teaching the PE by clinical contexts, rather than by organ systems, (b) restricting the number of PE maneuvers by discerning between a core of 'essential' PE signs of urgent conditions, 'important' signs that should supplement the core as clinically indicated, and 'optional' PE signs that are no longer useful, and (c) combining previously proposed alternatives of the traditional head-to-toe PE with application of hand-held ultrasound devices. We provide examples of essential, important and optional signs of the cardiovascular system.

Keywords: Medical education; PoCUS; basic clinical skills; physical examination.