OBJECTIVE: To assess the attitudes of final-year medical students to digital rectal examination (DRE) and their experience of performing DRE during clinical training. DESIGN: Questionnaire-based survey. SETTING AND PARTICIPANTS: All students in the final year of medical school at the University of Melbourne in 2003. OUTCOME MEASURES: Agreement with statements about attitude to DRE; number of DREs performed and abnormalities palpated; and ratings of frequency of supervision and perceived barriers to performing DRE. RESULTS: 222 of 256 students (87%) responded. Almost all (97%) believed that DRE is an essential requirement for a medical practitioner, and 94% that they should have the skill before graduating, while 92% said they had been taught how to perform it. The median number of DREs performed was two, with 17% of students performing none. Sixty-three per cent had palpated a prostate, 24% a prostate cancer, 19% a rectal tumour, and 11% faecal constipation. Half the students (52%) felt they could give a reasonable or confident opinion based on their DRE findings. The most often cited reason for not performing DREs was the lack of a doctor to act as a supervisor. CONCLUSIONS: A concerted effort is needed from academics, supervising doctors and students to improve medical students' proficiency in performing DRE and confidence about their findings.