The Changing Focus of Medical School Admissions: People Skills Required!

When I was applying to medical school in 1991, a stellar GPA and near perfect MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test) score would almost guarantee admission to a student’s medical school of choice.  Typically, interview days consisted of meeting with one or two esteemed faculty at the school, a tour with current students and a brief talk with the Dean of admissions.  Sometimes offers of admission would be made “on the spot” by the Dean.  Little time was spent evaluating the social skills or personality of the prospective student.  The best medical schools focused on packing their classes with valedictorians, published researchers, and other scholars.  Activities outside of academics including volunteer work and service were important “window dressings” on the application but the real focus was on the numbers.  Today, more than ever, we need to train doctors who can effectively communicate.   As healthcare costs continue to skyrocket out of control, so much of healthcare in the future is going to focus on prevention.  As I have said many times before, prevention starts with patient engagement.  Engagement requires that physicians are able to interact effectively with patients via multiple modalities including good old fashioned face to face encounters as well as via electronics and other mHealth applications. Effective in person, patient interactions require that a physician is guided by ethics and is able to understand and apply the concepts of empathy and compassion.

Technology based education has become heavily emphasized over the last decade.  Recently, many physicians have expressed concern over the tech-bias of newly trained doctors. As I have referenced in a recent blog, many senior physicians worry that the ability to interact and relate personally with patients and colleagues may be missing.  An article in the New York Times from April 2012, reported on the new focus by the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) on integrating social sciences into medical education.  The MCAT is has been redesigned to include a section on ethics, behavioral and social science.  This is a very nice thought, but how can we accurately measure empathy, compassion, and the direction of one’s moral compass through a standardized test?

In the Wall Street Journal this week, Jonnelle Marte discusses the fact that medical schools are now emphasizing “people skills” as they select students that will make up future classes.  Certainly grades in undergraduate school and MCAT scores remain important but many of the best medical schools are expanding the admissions process to include a full day of interviews with multiple faculty members.  Some admissions committees are requiring personality tests as well as interviews with trained psychologists.  Other institutions are creating “mock patient encounters” for prospective students in order to gain insight on the applicants ability to relate and interact with potential patients.  I believe that much of this is a move in the right direction.  Just as in most professions, “book smarts” and academic prowess isn’t always enough for success.  The most successful CEOs not only have a Harvard MBA (or equivalent) but also have the ability to make those around them feel good about what they are doing.  A recent global CEO study conducted by IBM found that companies in which CEOs embraced and fostered a culture of openness and collaboration outperformed others by nearly 30%.  It is clear that successful leaders engage followers and motivate them to function at the highest levels and reach potential.  These same principles arguably can be applied to produce more connected and interpersonally engaged physicians.

As healthcare continues to evolve, so must our ability to educate young doctors.  The US has one of the finest systems for medical education in the world today.  Students and doctors from all over the world come to America to train.  However, in order to select and train the best candidates our system must continue to evolve as well.  Now, more than ever, we must ensure that doctors are not only skilled healers but skilled leaders, motivators and communicators.  Although many of these interpersonal skills are learned over time, we must be able to identify potential and cultivate these abilities when selecting students to enroll in the medical schools of the future.  The new emphasis by the AAMC and MCAT on social and behavioral sciences is a move forward but we must remember that it is just one small step in crafting the caring, compassionate, empathetic physicians of tomorrow.

2 responses to “The Changing Focus of Medical School Admissions: People Skills Required!

  1. Excellent post… read this with great interest. Just for the sake of argument and discussion, should medical schools be seeking applicants that already have good people skills, or should they focus on imparting those skills on their incoming candidates?

    We know that “people skills” can effectively be taught… maybe we should capitalize this and focus on teaching those skills to those that have traditionally been behind the bench or squirreled away in the IT server basement.

    If interested, please see a recent blog post of mine, which I think is somewhat relevant: http://buffandturf.blogspot.com/2012/10/random-thoughts-and-questions-regarding.html

    Warmest regards,
    Mike

  2. Mike
    Thanks so much for taking the time to read my blog and post your comments. I appreciate the kind words. I think that certainly, in most cases, that people skills can be taught. However, I do believe that you must have the proper “raw materials”. I can remember folks in my medical school class who could blow a written exam away without blinking an eye but could not carry on a one way conversation with a brick wall. I think the days of admitting students based solely on MCAT and grades are over. I am hopeful that we can start to identify the “diamond in the rough”–there are lots of smart people out there that just need a little coaching in order to practice medicine with caring, compassion, and empathy. I very much enjoyed your blog and tweeted it immediately. I would also suggest that you consider submitting it to The Doctor Weighs In. They focus on issues with medical education and I think your post is a most excellent fit!
    Best
    Kevin

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