Problem-based learning (PBL) cases tell a story of a medical encounter; however, the version of the story is typically very biomedical in focus. The patient and her or his experience of the situation are rarely the focus of the case despite a prevalent discourse of patient-centeredness in contemporary medical education. This report describes a qualitative study that explored the question, "How does PBL teach medical students about what matters in medicine?"
The qualitative study, culminating in 2008, involved three data collection strategies: (1) a discourse analysis of a set of PBL cases from 2005 to 2006, (2) observation of a PBL tutorial group, and (3) semistructured, in-depth, open-ended interviews with medical educators and medical students.
In this report, using data gathered from 67 PBL cases, 26 hours of observation, and 14 interviews, the author describes six specific ways in which PBL cases-if not thoughtfully conceptualized and authored-can serve to overlook social considerations, thereby undermining a patient-centered approach. These comprise the detective case, the shape-shifting patient, the voiceless PBL person, the joke name, the disembodied PBL person, and the stereotypical PBL person.
PBL cases constitute an important component of undergraduate medical education. Thoughtful authoring of PBL cases has the potential to reinforce, rather than undermine, principles of patient-centeredness.