This study was intended to examine whether a marketing research approach improves understanding of medical specialty selection by medical students. This approach likens students to consumers who are deciding whether or not to purchase a product (specialty). This approach proposes that when consumers' criteria match their perceptions of a product's features, the likelihood that they will purchase it (select the specialty) increases. This study examines whether exploring students' selection criteria and perceptions of various specialties provides additional insights into the selection process. Methods Using a consumer behaviour model as a framework, a questionnaire was designed and administered to Year6 (final-year) students in 2008 and 2009 to elicit information on their knowledge about and interests in various specialties, the criteria they used in specialty selection, and their perceptions of six specialties. Results A total of 132 (67%) questionnaires were returned. In many instances, consistency between selection criteria and perceptions of a specialty was accompanied by interest in pursuing the specialty. Exceptions were noted and pointed to areas requiring additional research. For example, although >70% of female students replied that the affordance of a controllable lifestyle was an important selection criterion, many were interested in obstetrics and gynaecology despite the fact that it was not perceived as providing a controllable lifestyle. Minimal overlap among students reporting interest in primary specialties that possess similar characteristics (e.g. paediatrics and family medicine) demonstrated the need to target marketing (recruitment) efforts for each specialty individually. Conclusions Using marketing research concepts to examine medical specialty selection may precipitate a conceptual shift among health care leaders which acknowledges that, to attract students, specialties must meet students' selection criteria. Moreover, if consumers (students) deem a product (specialty) unattractive, it may need to be examined further to improve its appeal.
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