Clinically contextualised ECG interpretation
Background: ECGs are often taught without clinical context. However, in the clinical setting, ECGs are rarely interpreted without knowing the clinical presentation.
Methods: We aimed to determine whether ECG diagnostic accuracy was influenced by knowledge of the clinical context and/or prior clinical exposure to the ECG diagnosis. Fourth- (junior) and sixth-year (senior) medical students as well as medical residents were invited to complete two multiple-choice question (MCQ) tests and a survey on the same day. Test 1 comprised 25 ECGs without case vignettes. Test 2, completed immediately after Test 1, comprised the same 25 ECGs and MCQs, but with case vignettes for each ECG. Subsequently, participants indicated in the survey when last, during prior clinical clerkships, they have seen each of the 25 conditions tested in Test 1 and 2.
Results: This study comprised 176 participants, of which 67 (38.1%) were junior students, 55 (31.3%) were senior students and 54 (30.7%) were medical residents. Prior ECG exposure depended on their level of training, i.e., junior students were exposed to 52% of the conditions tested, senior students 63.4% and residents 96.9%. Overall, all groups showed a marginal improvement in accuracy of ECG interpretation when the clinical context was known to them (Cohen’s d=0.35, p<0.001). The gains in accuracy were more pronounced amongst residents (Cohen’s d=0.59, p<0.001), than amongst senior (Cohen’s d=0.38, p<0.001) or junior students (Cohen’s d=0.29, p<0.001). All participants were more likely to make a correct ECG diagnosis if they reported having seen the condition during prior clinical training, whether they were provided with a case vignette (odds ratio [OR] 1.46, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.24–1.71) or not (OR 1.58, 95% CI 1.35–1.84).
Conclusion: ECG interpretation using clinical vignettes devoid of real patient experiences does not appear to have as great an impact on ECG diagnostic accuracy as prior exposure during clinical training. However, exposure to ECGs during clinical training is largely opportunistic and haphazard. ECG training should therefore not rely on experiential learning alone for teaching electrocardiography, but instead be supplemented by other formal methods of instruction.