‘What…you can’t tell left from right?’ Medical students experiences in making laterality decisions

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CONTEXT: Wrong-sided procedures represent some of the most catastrophic errors in health care. Although errors in laterality are multifaceted in origin, human error is considered to be an important root cause. Evidence suggests that a significant proportion of the population, including medical students, experience difficulty in left-right discrimination (LRD). Given that not all medical students have equal LRD ability, there have been calls to raise awareness of this issue in medical education. The experiences of medical students with LRD, including those who have difficulty, remain unknown.

OBJECTIVES: This study was designed to gain deep insights into the lived experiences of medical students in LRD.

METHODS: A qualitative study was conducted using hermeneutic phenomenology. Medical students with a wide range of abilities in LRD were invited to participate and to be interviewed. Interviews were transcribed and analysed using template analysis to generate research themes. Members of the research team were continually reflexive when remaining firmly rooted in the data and in the principles of the hermeneutic process.

RESULTS: Analysis yielded four main themes: (i) discriminating right from left: an unconscious or a conscious task? (ii) 'What … you can't tell right from left?': an undesirable skill deficit; (iii) concealment, and (iv) 'But you're going to be a doctor!': impact on professional identity formation.

CONCLUSIONS: This study challenges normative expectations that LRD is an effortless task for all. Individuals who are challenged in LRD must engage in a complex conscious process to determine right from left. For the most part, this process is relatively effortless. However, the context of being a medical student can impose extra demands and heightens the risk associated with potential error. Medical education needs to respond by raising the profile of this challenge, with which many of our medical students are confronted, and by extending support to assist them in the interests of safe patient care.
Original languageEnglish
JournalMedical Education
Early online date10 Jan 2019
Publication statusEarly online date - 10 Jan 2019


  • Right left confusion


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