• students;
  • medical/*psychology;
  • health care seeking behaviour/*psychology;
  • attitude to health;
  • self care;
  • questionnaires

Background  Doctors have high levels of self-treatment, investigation and referral, but little is known about how medical students seek health care.

Methods  We carried out a questionnaire survey of Year 2 and 4 students, exploring their health-seeking behaviour and attitudes to self-care.

Setting  A London medical school.

Results  The response rate was 80%. Nearly all students (99%) were registered with a general practitioner (GP). A total of 43% had informally consulted doctors who were friends or relatives in the previous 12 months (61% of those with a doctor as a family member had informally consulted, and 33% of those without a doctor as a family member had informally consulted; P = 0.001). In all, 13% of Year 4 students and 2.2% of Year 2 students had received a prescription from a friend (P = 0.007). Almost a quarter (22%) of Year 4 and 1.3% of Year 2 students reported having directly contacted a specialist (P = 0.01). A third (32%) (43% Year 4, 1.3% Year 2; P = 0.006) of those referred in the previous 12 months had contacted the consultant directly. In all, 9.2% (0% Year 2, 20% Year 4; P = 0.001) had initiated their own investigations, and 25% (47% Year 4, 7% Year 2; P = 0.001) had been examined by a colleague. Students agreed that it was appropriate for doctors to self-investigate (52%), self-refer (59.1%) and self-prescribe (39.2%).

Conclusion  Medical students appear to bypass their GPs and initiate investigations, referrals or treatment. This is associated with increased clinical access or access through family members. Self-management of illness is learnt early on in students' careers and is increased with availability and increasing clinical access.