"It is this very knowledge that makes us doctors": an applied thematic analysis of how medical students perceive the relevance of biomedical science knowledge to clinical medicine

BMC Med Educ. 2020 Oct 12;20(1):356. doi: 10.1186/s12909-020-02251-w.


Background: Intensive study of the biomedical sciences remains a core component of undergraduate medical education with medical students often completing up to 2 years of biomedical science training prior to entering clerkships. While it is generally accepted that biomedical science knowledge is essential for clinical practice because it forms the basis of clinical reasoning and decision-making, whether medical students perceive an expanded role for their biomedical science knowledge remains to be examined.

Methods: We conducted a qualitative research study to explore how medical students in the first clerkship year perceived the relevance of biomedical science knowledge to clinical medicine during this pivotal time as they begin their transition from students to physicians. To identify previously unidentified perspectives and insights, we asked students to write brief essays in response to the prompt: How is biomedical science knowledge relevant to clinical medicine? Ten codes and four themes were interpreted through an applied thematic analysis of students' essays.

Results: Analysis of students' essays revealed novel perspectives previously unidentified by survey studies and focus groups. Specifically, students perceived their biomedical science knowledge as contributory to the development of adaptive expertise and professional identity formation, both viewed as essential developmental milestones for medical students.

Conclusions: The results of this study have important implications for ongoing curricular reform efforts to improve the structure, content, delivery, and assessment of the undergraduate medical curriculum. Identifying the explicit and tacit elements of the formal, informal, and hidden curriculum that enable biomedical science knowledge to contribute to the development of adaptive expertise and professional identity formation will enable the purposeful design of innovations to support the acquisition of these critical educational outcomes.

Keywords: Adaptive expertise; Applied thematic analysis; Basic science knowledge; Biomedical science knowledge; Lifelong learning; Medical students; Professional identity formation; Undergraduate medical education.