The physical examination is an essential clinical skill. The traditional approach to teaching the physical exam has involved a comprehensive “head-to-toe” checklist, which is often used to assess students before they begin their clinical clerkships. This method has been criticized for its lack of clinical context and for promoting rote memorization without critical thinking. In response to these concerns, Gowda and colleagues surveyed a national sample of clinical skills educators in order to develop a consensus “core” physical exam, which they report in this issue. The core physical exam is intended to be performed for every patient admitted by students during their medicine clerkships and to be supplemented by symptom-driven “clusters” of additional history and physical exam maneuvers.
In this commentary, the authors review the strengths and limitations of this Core + Clusters technique as well as the head-to-toe approach. They propose that the head-to-toe still has a place in medical education, particularly for beginning students with little knowledge of pathophysiology and for patients with vague or multiple symptoms. The authors suggest that the ideal curriculum would include teaching both the head-to-toe and the Core + Clusters exams in sequence. This iterative approach to physical exam teaching would allow a student to assess a patient in a comprehensive manner while incorporating more clinical reasoning as further medical knowledge is acquired.