Learning From Patients: Why Continuity Matters

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Patient continuity, described as the student participating in the provision of comprehensive care of patients over time, may offer particular opportunities for student learning. The aim of this study was to describe how students experience patient continuity and what they learn from it.


An interpretive phenomenological study was conducted between 2015 and 2016. Seventeen fourth-year medical students were interviewed following a longitudinal clinical placement and asked to describe their experiences of patient continuity and what they learned from each experience. Transcripts were analyzed by iteratively refining and testing codes, using health system definitions of patient continuity as sensitizing concepts to develop descriptive themes.


Students described three different forms of patient continuity. Continuity of care, or relational continuity, enabled students to build trusting and professional relationships with their patients. Geographical continuity allowed students to access information about patients from electronic records and their preceptors which allowed students to achieve diagnostic closure and learn to reevaluate their decisions. Students valued the learning that accrued from following challenging patients and addressing challenging decisions over time. Although difficult, these patient continuity experiences led students to critical reflection that was both iterative and deep, leading to intentions for future behavior.


Patient continuity in medical education does not depend solely on face-to-face continuity. Within various patient continuity experiences, following challenging patients and experiencing unanticipated diagnostic and management outcomes trigger critical reflection in students, leading to deep learning.

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