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An evaluation of the core physical exam in patients with minor peripheral chief complaints
  1. R M Rodriguez1,
  2. M A Phelps2
  1. 1
    Department of Emergency Services, San Francisco General Hospital, San Francisco, California, USA
  2. 2
    Department of Emergency Medicine, Alameda County Medical Center, California, USA
  1. Dr R M Rodriguez, Department of Emergency Services, Room 1E21, San Francisco General Hospital, 1001 Potrero, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA; rrodriguez{at}


Objective: We sought to determine (1) how often and why emergency medicine resident physicians perform core physical exams in patients with minor peripheral chief complaints (MCCs); and (2) the clinical impact this practice.

Methods: This prospective observational study was conducted at an urban emergency department with a 4 year emergency medicine residency. Charts of all emergency department patients presenting with MCCs in June–September 2003 were reviewed by blinded assistants for documentation of (1) core physical exams; (2) abnormal core physical exam findings; and (3) additional work up, treatment or follow up related to abnormal core physical exam findings. In May–June 2004 all emergency medicine residents were asked how often they perform core physical exams on emergency department patients with MCCs and their motivating factors for this practice.

Results: 297 patients met MCC inclusion/exclusion criteria. Among the 591 total cardiac, lung and abdominal exams performed, 8 (1.4%, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.7% to 2.7%) were abnormal and only 1 (0.1%, 95% CI 0% to 0.1%) finding led to further testing (ECG); none prompted change in treatment or follow up. All 46 eligible emergency medicine residents were evaluated; 72% (33) performed core physical exams in half or more patients with MCCs. Their primary reasons were to screen the underserved emergency department population, the belief that such exams are standard of care, and establishment of physician–patient rapport.

Conclusions: Because they want to screen an underserved population, establish rapport, and meet what they believe is a standard of care, most emergency medicine residents performed core exams on patients with MCCs. Abnormal core physical exam findings are unusual and rarely lead to further testing or change in management.

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  • Competing interests: None.

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