Objectives This study aimed to explore how medical students experience contacts with real patients and what they learn from them.
Methods We carried out a post hoc, single-group study in one teaching sector of a 5-year, problem-based, horizontally integrated, outcome-based and community-oriented undergraduate programme, in which students lacked clinical exposure in the pre-clerkship phase. Subjects comprised five cohorts of students on their first clerkships. Data consisted of purposively selected, voluntary, self-report statements regarding real patient learning (RPL). Constant comparative analysis was performed by two independent researchers.
Results Respondents valued patients as an instructional resource that made learning more real. They reported learning through visual pattern recognition as well as through dialogue and physical examination. They more often used social than professional language to describe RPL. They reported affective outcomes including enhanced confidence, motivation, satisfaction and a sense of professional identity. They also reported cognitive outcomes including perspective, context, a temporal dimension, and an appreciation of complexity. Real patient learning helped respondents link theory learned earlier with reality as represented by verbal, visual and auditory experiences. It made learning easier, more meaningful and more focused. It helped respondents acquire complex skills and knowledge. Above all, RPL helped learners to remember subject matter. Most negative responses concerned the difficulty of acquiring appropriate experience, but RPL made a minority of respondents feel uncomfortable and incompetent.
Conclusions Real patient learning led to a rich variety of learning outcomes, of which at least some medical students showed high metacognitive awareness. Sensitivity from clinical mentors towards the positive and negative outcomes of RPL reported here could support reflective clinical learning.