Open Access Research article

Student performance of the general physical examination in internal medicine: an observational study

Catharina M Haring*, Bernadette M Cools, Jos WM van der Meer and Cornelis T Postma

Author Affiliations

Department of Internal Medicine (463), Radboud university medical center, PO Box 9101, 6500 HB Nijmegen, The Netherlands

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BMC Medical Education 2014, 14:73  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-14-73

Published: 8 April 2014



Many practicing physicians lack skills in physical examination. It is not known whether physical examination skills already show deficiencies after an early phase of clinical training. At the end of the internal medicine clerkship students are expected to be able to perform a general physical examination in every new patient encounter. In a previous study, the basic physical examination items that should standardly be performed were set by consensus. The aim of the current observational study was to assess whether medical students were able to correctly perform a general physical examination regarding completeness as well as technique at the end of the clerkship internal medicine.


One hundred students who had just finished their clerkship internal medicine were asked to perform a general physical examination on a standardized patient as they had learned during the clerkship. They were recorded on camera. Frequency of performance of each component of the physical examination was counted. Adequacy of performance was determined as either correct or incorrect or not assessable using a checklist of short descriptions of each physical examination component. A reliability analysis was performed by calculation of the intra class correlation coefficient for total scores of five physical examinations rated by three trained physicians and for their agreement on performance of all items.


Approximately 40% of the agreed standard physical examination items were not performed by the students. Students put the most emphasis on examination of general parameters, heart, lungs and abdomen. Many components of the physical examination were not performed as was taught during precourses. Intra-class correlation was high for total scores of the physical examinations 0.91 (p <0.001) and for agreement on performance of the five physical examinations (0.79-0.92 p <0.001).


In conclusion, performance of the general physical examination was already below expectation at the end of the internal medicine clerkship. Possible causes and suggestions for improvement are discussed.

General physical examination; Undergraduate medical education; Assessment