Context The finding of case or content specificity in medical problem solving moved the focus of research away from generalisable skills towards the importance of content knowledge. However, controversy about the content dependency of clinical performance and the generalisability of skills remains.
Objectives This study aimed to explore the relative impact of both perspectives (case specificity and generalisable skills) on different components (history taking, physical examination, communication) of clinical performance within and across cases.
Methods Data from a clinical performance examination (CPX) taken by 350 Year 3 students were used in a correlated traits−correlated methods (CTCM) approach using confirmatory factor analysis, whereby ‘traits’ refers to generalisable skills and ‘methods’ to individual cases. The baseline CTCM model was analysed and compared with four nested models using structural equation modelling techniques. The CPX consisted of three skills components and five cases.
Results Comparison of the four different models with the least-restricted baseline CTCM model revealed that a model with uncorrelated generalisable skills factors and correlated case-specific knowledge factors represented the data best. The generalisable processes found in history taking, physical examination and communication were responsible for half the explained variance, in comparison with the variance related to case specificity.
Conclusions Pure knowledge-based and pure skill-based perspectives on clinical performance both seem too one-dimensional and new evidence supports the idea that a substantial amount of variance contributes to both aspects of performance. It could be concluded that generalisable skills and specialised knowledge go hand in hand: both are essential aspects of clinical performance.