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Medical Education 2011: 45: 69–80

Context  Trainees in undergraduate and postgraduate medical education engage in multiple transitions as part of the educational process, including many transitions that occur on both periodic and daily bases within medical education programmes. The clinical rotation, based on either a medical discipline or clinical care setting and occurring over a predetermined, short period of time, is a deeply entrenched educational approach with its roots in Abraham Flexner’s seminal report. Many assumptions about the presumed benefits of clinical rotations have become pervasive despite a lack of empirical evidence on their optimal timing and structure, and on how transitions between clinical rotations should occur.

Methods  In this paper, we examine the issue of rotational transitions from the three perspectives of sociology, learning theory, and the improvement of quality and safety.

Results  Discussion from the sociological perspective addresses the need for much greater attention to interprofessional relationships and professional development, whereas that from the learning theory perspective examines the gap between what is known from pedagogical and cognitive science and what is currently practised (learning theory). Discussion from the perspective of improving quality and safety refers to the critical need to embed trainees in functional clinical microsystems as meaningful participants.

Conclusions  Research is urgently needed on the effects of transitions on trainees, faculty staff, non-doctor health care providers and patients in order to optimise future competency-based training models and confirm or refute current assumptions.