Purpose: To determine how often medical students are not allowed to perform gynecological examinations during their obstetrics–gynecology clerkship, identify the barriers to participation related to physicians and patients, explore the role of the supervisory physician in not allowing medical student involvement, and explore differences between male and female students’ experiences.
Method: All medical students entering their obstetrics–gynecology clerkship at a medical school in the Netherlands between May and October 2011 were invited to participate in this study’s questionnaire, which asked them to report the number of gynecological examinations they were allowed and not allowed to perform during their clerkship. Eighteen questionnaire respondents participated in three focus groups.
Results: Of the 139 medical students invited, 76 (55%) completed the questionnaire. Students reported a total of 2,196 instances in which they were not allowed to participate in the examination; 89% (n = 1,956) were related to the supervisory physician. Qualitative data from the focus group interviews showed that female supervisory physicians prioritized patients’ autonomy above students’ learning needs. Furthermore, female students were less assertive than male students in asking the supervisory physician for permission to participate.
Conclusions: The physician’s role in not allowing student involvement is substantial and results in fewer opportunities for students to perform gynecological examinations. For students to develop the necessary gynecological exam skills during their clerkship, medical educators need to improve the learning environment.