Connecting Biochemistry Knowledge to Patient Care in the Clinical Workplace: Senior Medical Students’ Perceptions about Facilitators and Barriers

Tracy B. Fulton*, Sally Collins, Marieke van der Schaaf, Bridget C. O’Brien

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Phenomenon: Medical students have difficulties applying knowledge about biomedical mechanisms learned before clerkships to patient care activities. Many studies frame this challenge as a problem of basic science knowledge transfer predominantly influenced by students’ individual cognitive processes. Social cognitive theory would support extending this framing to the interplay between the individual’s cognition, the environment, and their behaviors. This study investigates senior medical students’ experiences of biochemistry knowledge use during workplace learning and examines how their experiences were influenced by interactions with people and other elements of the clinical learning environment. Approach: The authors used a qualitative approach with a constructivist orientation. From September to November 2020 they conducted semi-structured interviews with 11 fourth-year medical students at one institution who had completed the pre-clerkship curriculum, core clinical clerkships, and the United States Medical Licensing Exam Step 1. The authors identified themes using thematic analysis. Findings: Participants reported that they infrequently used or connected to biochemistry knowledge in workplace patient care activities, yet all had examples of such connections that they found valuable to learning. Most participants felt the responsibility for making connections between biochemistry knowledge and activities in the clinical workplace should be shared between themselves and supervisors, but connections were often recognized and acted on only by the student. Connections that participants described prompted their effort to retrieve knowledge or fill a perceived learning gap. Participants identified multiple barriers and facilitators to connecting, including supervisors’ behaviors and perceived knowledge, and “patients seen” in clerkships. Participants also reported learning biochemistry during USMLE Step 1 study that did not connect to patient care activities, underscoring a perception of disconnect. Insights: This study identifies specific personal, social, and physical environmental elements that influence students’ perceived use of biochemistry during patient care activities. Though these findings may be most significant for biochemistry, they likely extend to other basic science disciplines. Students’ self-directed efforts to connect to their biochemistry knowledge could be augmented by increased social support from clinical supervisors, which in turn likely requires faculty development. Opportunities for connection could be enhanced by embedding into the environment instructional strategies or technologies that build on known authentic connections between biochemistry and “patients seen” in clerkships. These efforts could strengthen student learning, improve clinical supervisors’ self-efficacy, and better inform curriculum design.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)398-410
Number of pages13
JournalTeaching and Learning in Medicine
Issue number4
Early online date7 Jul 2022
Publication statusPublished - 2023
Externally publishedYes


  • basic science
  • Biochemistry
  • social learning
  • student perceptions
  • workplace learning


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