Overcoming the barriers of teaching physical examination at the bedside: more than just curriculum design

Melissa Rousseau*, Karen D. Konings, Claire Touchie

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


BackgroundPhysicians in training must achieve a high degree of proficiency in performing physical examinations and must strive to become experts in the field. Concerns are emerging about physicians' abilities to perform these basic skills, essential for clinical decision making. Learning at the bedside has the potential to support skill acquisition through deliberate practice. Previous skills improvement programs, targeted at teaching physical examinations, have been successful at increasing the frequency of performing and teaching physical examinations. It remains unclear what barriers might persist after such program implementation. This study explores residents' and physicians' perceptions of physical examinations teaching at the bedside following the implementation of a new structured bedside curriculum: What are the potentially persisting barriers and proposed solutions for improvement?MethodsThe study used a constructivist approach using a qualitative inductive thematic analysis that was oriented to construct an understanding of the barriers and facilitators of physical examination teaching in the context of a new bedside curriculum. Participants took part in individual interviews and subsequently focus groups. Transcripts were coded and themes were identified.ResultsData analyses yielded three main themes: (1) the culture of teaching physical examination at the bedside is shaped and threatened by the lack of hospital support, physicians' motivation and expertise, residents' attitudes and dependence on technology, (2) the hospital environment makes bedside teaching difficult because of its chaotic nature, time constraints and conflicting responsibilities, and finally (3) structured physical examination curricula create missed opportunities in being restrictive and pose difficulties in identifying patients with findings.ConclusionsDespite the implementation of a structured bedside curriculum for physical examination teaching, our study suggests that cultural, environmental and curriculum-related barriers remain important issues to be addressed. Institutions wishing to develop and implement similar bedside curricula should prioritize recruitment of expert clinical teachers, recognizing their time and efforts. Teaching should be delivered in a protected environment, away from clinical duties, and with patients with real findings. Physicians must value teaching and learning of physical examination skills, with multiple hands-on opportunities for direct role modeling, coaching, observation and deliberate practice. Ideally, clinical teachers should master the art of combining both patient care and educational activities.
Original languageEnglish
Article number302
Number of pages10
JournalBMC Medical Education
Publication statusPublished - 11 Dec 2018


  • Curriculum
  • Medical education - Clinical skills training
  • Qualitative methods
  • Physical examination
  • Bedside
  • CARE


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