BACKGROUND: Physical examination is a crucial part in medical student curricula, but a decline in physical examination skills was noted in the last two decades. The benefic role of ultrasonography (US) as an adjuvant method for clinical examination was evaluated in many studies, but there are different approaches among countries and universities. The aim of this study was to evaluate the role of US in learning physical exam in 3rd year medical students. METHODS: One hundred and four 3rd year medical students were randomly enrolled. They were divided first in two equal groups (I and II, with and without US, by rotation) and then in smaller groups of 8-9 students. Pairs between smaller groups belonging to group I and II were randomly established in order to be trained and evaluated by the same instructor. We verified the influence of US on the correctness of thyroid palpation, lung percussion (inferior limit of the lung), and liver size estimation. They received no special training on US. After the learning sessions (four sessions, one hour each) a questionnaire was applied to each student. RESULTS: For thyroid palpation, there were no significant differences regarding the gland dimensions. For lung and liver palpation the results showed better results for some points in groups using US as adjuvant, but the most significant difference regarded the appreciation of self confidence (in favor of US-groups). The majority of the students using US appreciated as very useful the informations provided by US. Also, we found a clear improvement in detecting the upper limit of the liver comparing with the inferior limit of the lung, as result of better clinical skills. DISCUSSIONS AND CONCLUSION: The results from this pilot study proved the utility of US in learning clinical examination. The students can better understand the regional anatomy and can confirm immediately the physical findings. It is important for students to reach a certain level of knowledge regarding physical exam to better understand the role of US. Overall, we can state that use of US in the daily clinical examination teaching greatly improved the students' clinical examination abilities and that is a strong argument for integrating basic US into the medical school curriculum.
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