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Objective  This study set out to estimate the prevalence of any mismatch between medical students’ perceptions of patients’ health beliefs and those of a normative group of primary care patients.

Methods  A Perception of Health Scale, normed on 314 primary care patients and including four reproducible subscales based on Health Belief Model constructs, was distributed to 500 medical students in Years 3 and 4 at a private US medical school. The students were asked to indicate how a ‘typical’ patient they had seen with a preceptor or on a rotation might have answered. Responses were scored as matching or not matching the normative data. Group comparisons were made for gender, year of graduation, age and planned specialty.

Results  Depending on the subscale, at least 75% of the students’ responses did not match those of the normative patient group. There were no consistent group differences.

Conclusions  The findings suggest that medical students do not accurately perceive what patients believe about their own health. Whether this is true for residents and providers in practice remains unknown.