Intended for healthcare professionals

Research Christmas 2008: Formative Years

Right-left discrimination among medical students: questionnaire and psychometric study

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: (Published 16 December 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2826
  1. Gerard J Gormley, senior lecturer in general practice1,
  2. Martin Dempster, research coordinator, DclinPsych programme2,
  3. Rachael Best, postgraduate student2
  1. 1Centre of Medical Education, School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences, Queen’s University Belfast, Belfast, Northern Ireland
  2. 2School of Psychology, Queen’s University Belfast
  1. Correspondence to: G J Gormley g.gormley{at}
  • Accepted 24 November 2008


Objective To determine medical students’ self awareness and ability to discriminate right from left; to identify characteristics associated with this ability; and to identify any techniques used to aid discrimination.

Design Questionnaire and psychometric study.

Setting Undergraduate medical school, Northern Ireland.

Participants 290 first year undergraduate students.

Main outcome measure Medical students’ ability to discriminate right from left using the Bergen right-left discrimination test.

Results Test scores ranged from 31 to 143 on a scale of 0-144 (mean 112 (standard deviation 22.2)). Male students significantly outperformed female students (117.18 (26.96) v 110.80 (28.94)). Students who wanted to be surgeons performed significantly better than those who wanted to be general practitioners or medical doctors (119.87 (25.15) v 110.55 (27.36) v 112.50 (26.88)). The interaction effect for sex and career wishes was not significant (P=0.370). Students who used learnt techniques to help them discriminate scored significantly less than those who did not (P<0.001). Students had greater difficulty in discriminating right from left when looking at the forward view rather than the back view (P<0.001).

Conclusions Male students were better than female students at distinguishing right from left, and aspiring surgeons were better than aspiring general practitioners or medical doctors. Students had more difficulty with the forward view than the back view.


  • Thanks to all the students who participated in this study and the staff of the Clinical Skills Education Centre, Queen’s University Belfast. Thanks also to Sonja Helgesen Ofte (Statped West, Speech and Language Department, Bergen, Norway) for permission to use the Bergen right-left discrimination test.

  • Contributors: All authors helped conceive, design, and supervise this project. GJG wrote the first draft, which was revised by MD and RB, with GJG coordinating rewriting and agreement of the final article. MD provided statistical expertise. GJG is guarantor.

  • Funding: Association for the Study of Medical Education (small project grant).

  • Competing interests: None declared, although on occasion the authors have been known to confuse their right from their left.

  • Ethical approval: School of Psychology, Research Ethics Committee, Queen’s University Belfast.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

View Full Text