Background: Despite the frequency of musculoskeletal conditions seen in a broad spectrum of medical practice, there is compelling evidence that medical schools are inadequately preparing students in this field. We compared medical students across all residency interests with respect to their clinical confidence, cognitive mastery, and perception of education in musculoskeletal medicine.
Methods: A cross-sectional survey study of third and fourth-year students at Harvard Medical School was conducted during the 2005-2006 academic year. Two hundred and forty-nine of 337 students completed the survey, yielding an overall response rate of 74%. All participants were asked to complete a nationally validated objective examination in musculoskeletal medicine and a thirty-question survey soliciting their top residency choice, all of the musculoskeletal electives that they had taken, their clinical confidence, and their attitudes toward musculoskeletal education.
Results: Residency interest significantly affected the third-year students' performance on the cognitive mastery examination (p = 0.018) and also significantly affected both the third and the fourth-year students' clinical confidence in their ability to perform an examination of the musculoskeletal system (p = 0.023 and p = 0.015, respectively). The students' perception of the importance of musculoskeletal medicine, regardless of their residency interest, correlated with their decision to take musculoskeletal clinical electives (p = 0.009 and p < 0.001 for third and fourth-year students, respectively). Perceived importance was also correlated with higher clinical confidence for third-year students (p = 0.043) and increased examination scores for fourth-year students (p < 0.001). However, only students who listed orthopaedic surgery as their top residency choice demonstrated cognitive mastery in musculoskeletal medicine and reported above-average clinical confidence in their ability to conduct an examination of the musculoskeletal system.
Conclusions: Students' residency interest and their perception of the importance of musculoskeletal medicine to their future career influence the education that they receive in this field. In particular, students interested in non-orthopaedic residencies failed to demonstrate cognitive mastery and lacked clinical confidence. Possible approaches for medical schools to tackle this important issue that merit further exploration include requiring additional time for education in musculoskeletal medicine and providing a more structured musculoskeletal curriculum.