Most medical students take a Physical Diagnosis class during their second year. This course teaches history taking and the skills necessary for performing a complete physical examination. Back in my second year of medical school, I found this course a bit intimidating in terms of what the syllabus outlined for us to accomplish in a few short weeks. Little did I realize that I had most of the tools that I needed to do well in this class, namely, an insatiable curiosity, a good ear, two good hands and total interest in my patients.
The first lecturer emphasized that we would get 90% of what we needed to make a diagnosis from a good patient history. “Good” was the operative word here because as one sits and reads the “how-to” of taking a medical history, it seems that there is an abundance of information that we must obtain in the patient interview while writing a couple of notes here and there. How would I remember every detail? What happens if I forget something important? What if the patient lies to me? How am I going to figure out what a comatose patient needs? Those were just a few of my concerns in addition to looking at my opthalmoscope and trying to figure out how I would ever get the “hang” of making this forbidding tool useful in my practice.
One day of the week, we would spend the afternoon in the hospital with our preceptors. My upperclassmen friends looked at the name on my paper and said that I had “hit the jackpot” with my preceptor assignment. My preceptor was a master diagnostician and an excellent teacher too. He was an endocrinologist who specialized in metabolic syndrome, a disorder that runs largely unchecked in most medically under-served populations because of poor diet and lack of physical activity. I was excited to get my practical knowledge underway with my new preceptor. My preceptor had two medical students assigned to his service at the same time. It turned out later that the other student rotating with me was my rotation partner for all of third year so we were great friends and become even closer.
We met our preceptor in his office and he led us to one of the medicine floors in the hospital. He had made a short list of his patients who were willing to have us use them for our history-taking practice. I entered the room of a middle-aged gentleman who was hospitalized for jaundice. I quickly went thorough my script of questioning this very soft spoken man who lay quietly in bed. I came to find out that he was a physician who had been diagnosed with a biliary disorder that would kill him without a liver transplant in the next two weeks. He was kind and patient as I asked all of those questions about family history, social history, medications and the like. He asked me to stop by later that evening and read my historical write-up back to him. When I stopped by, he helped me organize the information and provided invaluable assistance in thinking about how to question patients. We chatted off and on for a week, until he received the word that he was being transferred for his liver transplant. I saw him three weeks later when he was ready to leave the hospital with a new liver, a new life and such joy!
I practiced with my stethoscope on my own chest. It became very satisfying to lie in bed at night and listen to my own heart sounds. I listened to each sound appreciating the tones and timing. I also listened to my breath sounds, over the trachea, over the bronchi and over the lung parenchyma. I practiced listening to each heart valve and learned to appreciate the subtle differences between the sounds a the pulmonic site versus the sounds at the mitral site. I appreciated the split in my second heart sound with my respiratory cycle. If I could appreciate the subtleties of my own chest, I would be able to pick out abnormalities on my patients.
That pesky opthalmoscope was the biggest hurdle that I had to cross. The first thing that I did was learn to operate the light and aperture. Since I have no visual defects, I always start with the diopter setting on 0. I also quickly learned the utility of performing this examination in a dim room as bright light makes the patient’s pupils quite constricted. A dilated pupil is easier to examine. The other useful piece of information is to start with the opthalmoscope light dim so that you don’t blind the patient while you are attempting to examine the retina. At first, I could just pick out the “red reflex”. Soon, I found a vessel and later, I learned to focus sharply on those vessels and follow them to the optic disks. In short, there is a learning curve that is most quickly overcome if you force yourself to examine the retinas of every patient that comes into your office. If you don’t practice, you won’t learn to do an adequate examination. I would wager that most physicians out in practice today, other than the ophthalmologists and neurologists, do not perform an adequate retinal exam.
When it came to learning the rectal, pelvic and breast exams, we were taught by professional “patients”. These people knew the exams and used their own bodies to teach medical students. On the pelvic exam demonstrations, one of the demonstrators indicated that she was in the middle of her menstrual cycle. One of the male students in my group, left the room and never returned. I never found out how or if he learned to perform a pelvic examination but those demonstrators were excellent. They allowed us to practice and pointed out landmarks and hints that were invaluable. I found myself thinking about the type of person who is willing to become a professional demonstrator of breast, pelvic and rectal exams. While the job pays well, I would have to cross it off of my list of things to do if I needed loads of money quickly.
The neurological examination is the most fun to perform and write up. I found myself collecting an odd assortment of instruments to test sensations of hot and cold (I used capped test tubes filled with tap water); vibration (tuning fork), smell (alcohol pads, nail polish remover pads); color sensation (photos); light touch (feathers of various colors) and sharp versus dull (paper clip). I had a small bell and a small stuffed kitten as objects for my patients to name. I also collected a tape measure for lesions and an assortment of cotton swabs and tongue blades for cranial nerve testing.
I learned to perform my history while I was performing my physical examination. I would start with the head and ask about problems with headache, earache and vision. I would examine the eyes and nose while asking about sinus problems. I went from head to toe asking questions as I moved along. I always save invasive exams like pelvic and rectal for the end of the exam. While the patient is getting dressed, I would jot down my pertinent positive findings and spend the rest of the time chatting with the patient and explaining my findings. At this point, my preceptor would usually join me and we would discuss the treatment plans for the patient together.
The most important thing that I learned in this class was the value of communicating with your patient. I probably learned more from my patients than they learned from me. I learned to listen to their words and put their words and my physical findings into a cogent clinical plan for treatment. I also learned the importance of just getting to my patient’s fears, concerns, likes and dislikes. When a physician touches a patient, there is a relationship of trust that is begun. Your patient trusts that you will use everything that you have learned in biochemistry, anatomy, pathology, pharmacology and physiology to figure out what you can do to get them healthy and keep them healthy. There is a puzzle and the pieces must be fit together for the good of the patient.
I also came to appreciate the sanctity of the apprentice-mentor relationship that I had developed with my preceptor. In no other profession is that relationship so important than the attending physician/medical student. My preceptor was indeed a master and I was a very willing student. He led me through the maze of various patient encounters and kept me coming back for more. It was truly magical in many ways.
Finally, I mastered that opthalmoscope during the last week of my Physical Diagnosis class. I was quite comfortable with my exam and I appreciate the art of being able to make a diagnosis. While this class seemed to be quite intimidating at first, it became one the the sentinel courses in my medical school experience. After five plus years of practice and thousands of patients later, I wonder if my preceptor knows how many thousands of patients he has touched through all of his students.