Realism Challenges in Documentation Components of Objective Structured Clinical Examinations
First, students writing a patient note may find it unclear how they should handle discrepancies between the intended diagnosis and physical exam findings. For example, for an intended diagnosis of asthma, the simulated encounter commonly features a 20-year-old patient who presents with episodic wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a nonproductive cough, all of which are exacerbated by tobacco smoke. Lung auscultation, however, paradoxically reveals good air movement with no wheezing or crackles since this patient is, in actuality, a healthy actor. This inconsistency, which extends to visual findings (skin, mouth, eyes, nose, and ears), cardiac murmurs, abnormal reflexes, and many other signs, is especially problematic because OSCEs (including the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 2 Clinical Skills exam) expect students to list pertinent positive and negative physical exam findings to support a proposed diagnosis.2
Second, most OSCE documentation bears only superficial resemblance to inpatient notes because OSCE patients usually present to “first contact” settings such as primary care clinics or emergency departments.2,3 Specifically, OSCE documentation does not test important skills involved in admitting a patient (e.g., reviewing past medical records), in caring for an admitted patient (e.g., tracking a patient’s daily clinical progress and laboratory results), or in discharging a patient (e.g., writing a discharge summary). The deemphasis of these skills is particularly concerning since postgraduate year 1 residents practice primarily in inpatient settings.
Institutions that incorporate documentation aspects into OSCEs should address these two challenges to realism to improve their internal validity and generalizability. To minimize inconsistency, medical schools could supplement OSCEs with multimedia equipment, such as monitors and headphones that simulate relevant visual and auscultatory physical exam findings. The USMLE Step 1 and Step 2 Clinical Knowledge exams already employ this strategy for certain questions. To optimize applicability to inpatient settings, OSCEs should include common inpatient scenarios, such as responding to night calls or synthesizing a discharge summary from progress notes.