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Open Access Highly Accessed Research article

Medical students’ experiences learning intimate physical examination skills: a qualitative study

Andra M Dabson1*, Parker J Magin23, Gaynor Heading4 and Dimity Pond5

Author Affiliations

1 School of Medicine and Population Health, University of Newcastle, University Dr, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia

2 School of Medicine and Population Health, University of Newcastle, University Dr, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia

3 GP Training Valley-to Coast, Gavey St, Mayfield West, NSW 2308, Australia

4 Health Education and Training Institute, Victoria Rd, Gladesville, NSW 2111, Australia

5 School of Medicine and Population Health, University of Newcastle, University Dr, Callaghan, NSW 2308, Australia

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:39  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-39

Published: 28 February 2014

Abstract

Background

Intimate physical examination skills are essential skills for any medical graduate to have mastered to an appropriate level for the safety of his or her future patients. Medical schools are entrusted with the complex task of teaching and assessing these skills for their students. The objectives of this study were to explore a range of medical students’ experiences of learning intimate physical examination skills and to explore their perceptions of factors which impede or promote the learning of these skills.

Methods

Individual semi-structured interviews (N = 16) were conducted with medical students in years two to five from the University of Newcastle, as part of a larger research project investigating how medical students develop their attitudes to gender and health. This was a self-selected sample of the entire cohort who were all invited to participate. A thematic analysis of the transcribed data was performed.

Results

Students reported differing levels of discomfort with their learning experiences in the area of intimate physical examination and differing beliefs about the helpfulness of these experiences. The factors associated with levels of discomfort and the helpfulness of the experience for learning were: satisfaction with teaching techniques, dealing with an uncomfortable situation and perceived individual characteristics in both the patients and the students. The examination causing the greatest reported discomfort was the female pelvic examination by male students.

Conclusions

Student discomfort with the experience of learning intimate physical examination skills may be common and has ongoing repercussions for students and patients. Recommendations are made of ways to modify teaching technique to more closely match students’ perceived needs.

Keywords:
Medical student; Intimate physical examination; Learning experiences; Teaching techniques