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Physical Examinations I

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General Approach to the Physical Exam

General Approach to the Physical Exam



Physical examination has been fundamental to the practice of medicine for centuries. Despite substantial advancement in medical instrumentation, physical examination remains a valuable diagnostic tool, and its importance cannot be overstated. As physicians assess history and conduct a physical, they gather information leading to a firm hypothesis, which promotes a more judicious approach to ordering tests and analysis of those tests. This, in turn, has the potential to reduce patient risk and health care costs.

This video will illustrate some of the important steps that every physician must take to ensure that the physical exam is carried out in a safe and sensitive manner.

A physical exam can be comprehensive or specific, but the overall steps before and during each exam remain the same. Let's review these steps in detail.

First, the exam room should be prepared for the patient by disinfecting surfaces to be used during the examination. In addition, a physician should disinfect equipment like the stethoscope or the reflex hammer, which may be used during the exam. Before every exam, wash your hands with soap and water or apply topical disinfectant solution. If the patient is suffering from a known specific infection, then control precautions should be taken by obtaining the necessary protective equipment. Make sure that cuffs of the gloves cover the gown so that no skin is exposed.

Once the patient is seated in the room, knock on the door and ask for patient's permission to enter the room. Introduce yourself and your role. Request the family members or friends who have accompanied the patient to step out of the room. This provides an important opportunity to speak to the patient alone. Ensure that the exam room curtains are drawn and doors are closed. While talking to the patient, general observations should be made regarding the patient's health. These include, appearance consistency with the stated age, overall health, alertness, affect, thought content and organization, and perception.

After this initial conversation, determine what aspects of the examination are necessary. Ensure the patient is dressed appropriately for the planned exam. If necessary, provide the patient with a gown and drape and give them some time to change. After some time, knock on the door and ask for the patient's permission to enter the room. Request the patient to occupy the exam table. Adjust the back of the exam table as needed to optimize your ability to perform maneuvers. The physical examination can be subdivided into the following components: general survey, measuring vital signs, examination of the neurologic functioning and mental status, examination of the head, eyes, ears, nose, throat, chest, lungs, lymph nodes, cardiovascular, abdomen, musculoskeletal, skin, genitourinary, and rectal. A chaperone may be necessary if a sensitive exam like genitourinary, rectal, or breast exams is to be conducted.

Explain the patient the physical exam that is going to be conducted and ask for their permission to proceed with the exam. "Now that I've explained what I am going to do, may I proceed with the examination?" Each exam consists of maneuvers employing the techniques of inspection, percussion, palpation, and auscultation, each of which is explored in detail in separate videos of this collection. You should strive to minimize patient repositioning by grouping maneuvers together that need to be performed in a particular position. After the exam is complete, request the patient to change back to regular clothing. It is optimal to wait until the patient is dressed again before offering advice and opinion. Subsequently, weighing how the presence or absence of particular findings affects disease probability and consolidating the information obtained from patient's history and physical exam, one may decide to initiate a therapy or order additional testing in a deliberate and judicious manner.

You have just watched JoVE's video on general approach to the physical examination.

This video reviewed the importance of physical examination in the modern patient encounter and demonstrated some critical steps to ensure the exam is carried out in a safe and sensitive manner. Important preparatory steps before the examination help to reduce risk of infection, and an organized approach to the maneuvers being performed minimizes the need for unnecessary patient repositioning.

Given the recent emphasis on medical cost containment, patient safety, and access to services, physical examination remains inexpensive, widely available, and carries little risk of adverse effects. As always, thanks for watching!

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