3 Comments »Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 2:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine


Place your hand over your heart. Now move it to your stomach. How about your thyroid? Ok, that last one is a little trickier, but I’d be shocked to meet anyone who couldn’t do the first two. Well, it’s time to be shocked.

A study published in the journal BMC Family Practice has found an appalling lack of public knowledge of human anatomy. The research, carried out by psychologists at King’s College London, aimed to discovery whether public understanding of anatomy had improved since a similar study in the 70s. It hasn’t.

Clue: It isn't D.
Clue: It isn't D.

They gave over 700 people multiple choice questions like the example above. Most were patients currently undergoing treatment for one of six types of conditions; the researchers were interested to see whether a patient with respiratory problems would be able to identify the location of the lungs, for example. The rest of the sample (133 participants) were members of the public.

In the test above, 44% of the public failed to find the true location of the heart. For cardiac patients the results were even worse, with just over half seemingly unaware of the placement of their troublesome organ.

As the researchers rightly point out, this knowledge gap poses a significant problem for doctors trying to inform patients about their illness. They point to previous studies which show that many people do not know the difference between pairs of medical terms, like heart attack and myocardial infarction, or fracture and broken bone.

I’m not too worried about that kind of knowledge – I couldn’t tell you the difference between those terms, because I’m not a doctor. What I simply can’t fathom is how it is possible for anyone to not know where their heart is. We feel it beat every second of every day. After heavy exercise, the intensity of our heartbeat is so loud that you can hear it. Other organs fair even worse: 72.9% could not correctly place the lungs. What do these people think is going on in their body?

We can take comfort reading that, as you might expect, the study found levels of knowledge increased amongst more educated participants. There was also a slight decrease in knowledge for older participants, suggesting that education is slowly improving. Perhaps public understanding of anatomy is getting better then, but this research shows that a lot more work needs to be done.

John Weinma, Gibran Yusuf, Robert Berks, Sam Rayner, & Keith Petrie (2009). How accurate is patients’ anatomical knowledge: a cross-sectional, questionnaire study of six patient groups and a general public sample. BMC Family Practice, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-43

  1. 3 Comments

  2. I saw the BBC news story about this earlier today.

    This afternoon I had a few minutes spare time at the end of a year 8 test so I got the pictures up on the interactive whiteboard and polled them as to who thought what. The vast majority of them (not sure of actual figures) were confident and correct about the location of the heart, lungs and pancreas. I’d be interested to know who exactly they sampled; teenagers (these were 12-13 year olds) may know better than we think.

    By Lottie on Friday 12 June, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  3. The people sampled were mostly in their late 40s, early 50s. Perhaps repeating the study in 2050 will show better results!

    By Jacob Aron on Friday 12 June, 2009 at 2:49 pm

  4. Alternatively, the people being tested found (D) so funny that they had to mark it! Never underestimate the silliness of the average human.

    By JEJ on Friday 12 June, 2009 at 10:48 pm

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