Evaluation of Palliative Care Training and Skills Retention by Medical Students

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Training in palliative and end-of-life care has been introduced in medical education; however, the impact of such training and the retention of skills and knowledge have not been studied in detail. This survey study examines long-term follow-up on end-of-life communication skills training, evaluation, and skills retention in medical students.

Materials and methods

During the surgical clerkship, all third-year medical students received communication skills training in palliative care using simulated patients. The training involved three scenarios involving diverse surgical patients with conditions commonly encountered during the surgical clerkship. The students used web-based best practice guidelines to prepare for the patient encounters. The following communication abilities were evaluated: (1) giving bad news clearly and with empathy, (2) initiating death and dying conversations with patients and/or their family members, (3) discussing do not resuscitate status and exploring preferences for end-of-life care, and (4) initiating conversations regarding religious or spiritual values and practices. All students were surveyed after 1 year (12-24 mo) to ascertain: (1) the retention of skills and/or knowledge gained during this training, (2) application of these skills during subsequent clinical rotations, and (3) overall perception of the value added by the training to their undergraduate medical education. These results were correlated with residency specialty choice.


The survey was sent to all graduating fourth-year medical students (n = 105) in our program, of which 69 students responded to the survey (66% response rate). All respondents agreed that palliative care training is essential in medical school training. Seventy percent of the respondents agreed that the simulated encounters allowed development of crucial conversation skills needed for palliative/end-of-life care communications. The most useful part of the training was the deliberate practice of “giving bad news” (85%). Most of the respondents (80%) indicated retention of overall communication skills with regard to approach and useful phrases. Forty-five percent claimed retention of communication skills surrounding death and dying, and 44% claimed retention of end-of-life preferences/advance directives/do not resuscitate. Relatively few respondents (16%) retained skills regarding religious or spiritual values. There was no correlation between training evaluation/skill retention and the area of residency specialty the students pursued on graduation.


Early training in palliative and end-of-life care communication is feasible and effective during the surgical clerkship. Students highly valued the simulated patient and/or family discussions and retained most of the skills and knowledge from the experiential simulated encounters. However, students felt the skills developed could be reinforced with opportunities to observe their attending physicians or residents leading such discussions and involving students in such discussions as and when appropriate.



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