Background: Many U.K. medical schools have patient contact in the first two years of the undergraduate course. Aim: To compare the purposes and organization of early patient contact in UK medical schools and to relate these arrangements to the schools' curricular objectives. Methods: A telephone survey of lead educators in UK medicals schools. Categories of contact were plotted against phases of the course to discern patterns of organisation. Results: The quantity of contact varies considerably (four to 65 days). There is a pattern, with learning objectives around the social context of health and illness preceding skills based work and integrated clinical knowledge for practice coming later. Schools fall into three categories: close adherence to the preclinical/clinical split, with limited early contact acting as an introduction to social aspects of health; provision of substantial patient contact to maximize the integration of knowledge and skills; and transitional, with limited clinical goals. General practice provides between one third and one half of early patient contact. Conclusions: Arrangements meet the objectives set by each school and reflect differing educational philosophies. Change is toward more early contact. There appears to be no national guidance which supports a minimum quantity of patient contact or specific educational purpose in the early years of U.K. basic medical training.