Skin cancers are the most common malignancies in Caucasian populations. Non-specialists are responsible for the initial assessment of skin lesions and are required to act as the gatekeepers to dermatological cancer services in many healthcare systems. The majority of such physicians receive very limited formal undergraduate or postgraduate dermatology training. The British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) has produced guidelines that list the lesions that students should be able to diagnose on graduation and the majority of UK medical schools’ operate curricula in keeping with these. There is, however, virtually no evidence as to whether these competencies are being achieved. We set out to determine students’ competence at skin lesion diagnosis and to quantify their clinical exposure to examples of such lesions during their dermatology attachment.
Three linked studies were undertaken. In the first, students’ competence was tested by randomized slideshows of images containing the 16 lesions recommended in the UK guidelines. Students’ accuracy was tested at the beginning (Day 1) and end (Day 10) of their clinical placement, with a random sample of students retested 12 months later. Secondly, students’ exposure to these lesions was recorded during their attachments. Finally a survey of the additional dermatological resources used by the students was undertaken.
Study 1: Students’ diagnostic accuracy increased from 11% on Day 1 to 33% on Day 10 (effect size +2.72). After 12 months half of this effect had disappeared and the students accuracy had dropped to 24%. Study 2: Students’ exposure to the recommended lesions was poor with 82% not even witnessing a single example of each of the 3 major skin cancers. Despite these measurements, only a minority of students reported that they were not confident at diagnosing skin tumours. Study 3: The majority of students use additional resources to supplement their learning.
In the light of what we know about learning in dermatology, our data would suggest, that the current (traditional) undergraduate attachment is inadequate to meet the UK recommendations for graduate competence. As well as critically examining the basis for these recommendations, we need more empirical data on student performance and exposure, in order to improve teaching and learning.