What is a Physical Exam?

The physical exam is part of the first introduction a patient has with the Heart Institute at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

As the term "physical exam" suggests, physicians and staff obtain information about the patient through listening, touching and observing.

Description of the Physical Exam

Despite technologic advances, the physical examination remains the cornerstone of the evaluation process for any patient referred to Cincinnati Children's Heart Institute.  This approach allows us to provide the best care possible. We perform the evaluation in a patient- and family-centered manner so there is active engagement of not only our staff, but also our families and patients.

Process of the Physical Exam

To start, a thorough medical history often occurs before the physical examination and allows the cardiology staff to determine the reason for referral, significant family and medical history, and current symptoms with respect to the cardiovascular system. Various members of the staff conduct the history and physical exam. They include the nurse, the nurse practitioner, the cardiology fellow (a doctor receiving training in pediatric cardiology) and the attending cardiology physician. At times, resident physicians and medical students may be involved.

The medical history also provides the first interaction of our staff with the patient and family so we can get to know you before the physical examination. The family’s and patient’s personal interests will be explored by the providers.  Families and patients are encouraged to do the same with their providers.

The information gathered for a medical history is likely to vary somewhat based not only on the age of the patient, but also on the reason for referral.

A detailed medical history allows us to tailor the physical examination and, if needed, subsequent testing to fully learn about the patient's suspected problem.

The first portion of the physical examination is performed by the screening clinic nurse, or medical assistant. Height, weight, blood pressure and oxygen saturation (percent of oxygen in the blood) are measured in the clinic at the time of being checked into the examination room.

Although these tests are painless, on occasion smaller children are anxious about blood pressure and oxygen saturation measurments. The Cincinnati Children’s staff take steps to make getting these measurements a calm experience for young children as much as possible. Rarely, however, are these tests difficult to obtain.

The physical examination performed by the staff can be broken down into three separate parts, all of which are important in the accurate assessment of the patient.

  • Observation (examination by looking): The act of observing a patient can be a useful tool. Patients are observed for their general sense of distress/discomfort, possible associated abnormalities (for example, physical deformities or Down Syndrome) and for any more subtle abnormalities that might be a clue to more serious underlying heart disease, for example, cyanosis (bluish color of the skin or lips) or chest asymmetry (unequalness).

  • Palpation (examination by touching): Using the fingers and hands, the physician in the clinic can gain insight into peripheral circulation (blood flow to the arms and legs) as well as overall heart muscle performance. Signs of peripheral edema(fluid buildup in the arms and legs)can also be noted.

    The chest is often palpated to determine the location of the heart and its degree of activity.

    Additionally, some murmurs (hearts sounds that can be due to abnormal blood flow) can be loud enough to be felt through the chest. These sounds are known as "thrills" and can pinpoint a structural heart abnormality.

  • Auscultation (examination by listening): The final portion of the physical examination involves the use of the stethoscope to listen to various sounds that a heart makes.

    During the auscultation process, valve closure and opening sounds are determined. We attempt to determine how many valve closure sounds there are, how loud they are, and where they are best heard.

Heart murmurs are characterized by timing in the heart cycle, loudness, pitch and location. The entire chest and often the back are inspected with the stethoscope during this process.
In addition, extra sounds such as rubs, gallops and clicks can be heard. These, if present, can help the doctor learn about a potential cardiac abnormality.

Finally, the lungs and abdomen (chest and belly) are examined both by auscultation (listening) and palpation (touching) so as to determine the position and size of abdominal organs, abnormal lung findings and possible murmurs in the abdomen or back.

During the course of the physical examination process, the pulse rate (heart rate) and respiratory rate (breathing rate) are determined often by several observers.

Common Questions and Answers

Is there any special preparation for a physical examination?

No. However, a quiet, relatively inactive patient allows for the most precise physical examination. With infants and young children, favorite toys or a pacifier might be useful in achieving an adequate level of patient cooperation.

Who performs and interprets the test?

As Cincinnati Children's is a teaching institution, patients are often examined by more than one physician.

Pediatric residents, nurse practitioners, pediatric cardiology fellows and attending pediatric cardiologists are commonly involved in the evaluation of a patient in the clinic.

The test is interpreted immediately upon its performance, and often there may be discussion by the physicians at the bedside if interesting or confusing findings are noted.

Where and when is this test done?

The test is performed in the clinic at Cincinnati Children's or at one of our many outreach centers. Individual, private examination rooms exist at all locations.

Complete or focused physical examinations are done once or many times a day in the case of a hospitalized child.

When are results of the physical exam available?

One advantage of the physical examination is that it can be interpreted immediately and discussed with the family upon its completion.

Physical examination and medical history taking allow us to determine the need for further diagnostic testing.

The physical examination and the concurrent history taking will be our first introduction to the families and their first introduction to us.

It is a painless, quick, relatively inexpensive, but precise way to evaluate the infant, child, adolescent or young adult with a suspected cardiac abnormality.

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Last Updated 01/2024

Reviewed By

Christopher Statile, MD and Carvey Wright, MSN, RN

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