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Medical Schools Screen Applicants for Charm Factor

“People who need people…are the luckiest people
in the wo[[wysiwyg_imageupload:91:]]rld,” crooned Barbra Streisand.  The new tune for medical schools may be “people who are good with people” are likely to be future doctors.

In a startling departure from strictly academic criteria, at least eight medical schools in the U.S. (including Stanford University and UCLA) and 13 Canadian schools are screening prospective students for people skills.  Through a process called Multiple Mini Interviews (MMI), candidates undergo a series of short interviews (think speed dating) to see how well they can work as a team and think on their feet.

Virginia Tech Carilion, the nation’s newest medical school, is a leading proponent of MMI.  Administrators note that the most important part of the interview is not necessarily the candidates’ initial responses, but how they handle themselves when someone disagrees with them.  “We are trying to weed out the students who look great on paper but haven’t developed the people or communications skills we think are important,” said Dr. Stephen Workman, associate dean for admissions and administration, in a recent New York Times article.

Why the sudden emphasis on people skills when many doctors have a notoriously poor bedside manner?  There are two factors driving this trend.  Studies have indicated that many preventable deaths are caused by poor communications among doctors, nurses, and patients, with doctors in particular blamed for inept skills.  The second factor has to do with the evolution of care to more of an interdisciplinary team focus and away from the lone practitioner.  The development of accountable care organizations (ACOs) with their hospital and physician practice integration is accelerating this trend.

Perhaps people skills are not in isolation from other skills that make a good physician.   Candidate scores on the MMI have been highly predictive of their scores on medical license exams years later.

As communications professionals, touting the value of these skills for physicians is preaching to the choir.  We understand the power of effective communications and being able to “read people” in difficult circumstances.  Medical schools should be applauded for making this a priority.  Patients will be better served, and our healthcare system will function more efficiently with physicians who understand people as well as science.