A New MCAT and a New Focus for Future Doctors

The first professor to lecture our class of 170 bright-eyed newbies on our first day of medical school was a gray-haired veteran of the hospital wards. Her stoic demeanor provided a sharp contrast to the palpable anxiety emanating from her audience as we fidgeted under our crisp, starched new white coats.

Most of us were fresh out of undergraduate programs in biology, neuroscience, or biochemistry at some of the country's finest universities. Poring over science textbooks and class notes preparing for our careers in medicine, we'd spent a disproportionate share of our early 20's in libraries, coffee shops, or our own lonely rooms. We'd been picked and pruned for our aptitude for science -- our understanding of how bromide molecules react with carboxylic acid moieties or how the HPA axis regulates kidney function in response to blood salt concentrations. Our collective GPA surpassed 3.8, and our average score on the Medical College Admissions Test (MCAT) -- the standardized rite of passage for applicants to US medical schools -- broke the 95th percentile.

But this was far too important a moment for this veteran doctor to talk to us about science. Rather she wanted to talk about something that is often far more germane to the practice of medicine: "Doctors have a front row seat to the show of life," she paused. "And sometimes the production asks us to take the stage."

While an understanding of and aptitude for science is certainly important, for a profession focused on caring for people, it's a wonder that so little attention is paid to empathy, compassion, or communication skills in the selection of future doctors. While we spend years preparing for our careers in medicine by studying the anatomy of the human body and the physiology that undergirds its function, we spend considerably less time learning about the anatomy of human emotions and the sociology that shapes our social interactions. It's no surprise that a common complaint heard from patients is that doctors spend more time caring for their diseases than they do for patients themselves.

And it's clear that doctors with people skills perform better -- a recent study published in the journal Medical Education showed that doctors with higher emotional intelligence had higher job satisfaction and were less likely to burn out. More importantly, their patients were more likely to be satisfied with their care. In fact, there's even evidence to suggest that doctors with good people skills are less likely to be sued. Why? Because they're more likely to keep open lines of communication and to apologize when they've made mistakes -- obvious steps that can often be overlooked when the human qualities are neglected in decisions about what we want in our future doctors.

In that light, a recent announcement from the American Association of Medical Colleges (AAMC), the umbrella organization for US medical schools and the organization in charge of all things medical school admissions, is promising. Beginning in 2015, the AAMC will begin administering a new version of the MCAT that will place more emphasis on the sociobehavioral sciences in medical school preparation.

This new version of the exam will include a section called "Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior" which will measure applicants to medical school on their understanding of core concepts in psychology and sociology -- those concepts critically important to working intimately with people, like doctors do on a daily basis. By comparison, the MCAT that I took -- and the one nearly all applicants to medical school have taken since 1981 -- focused exclusively on core science reasoning skills in physiology, physics, and chemistry, along with basic reading comprehension.

While this new MCAT certainly won't solve all of the people-problems in medicine, it's certainly a promising step. Most of all because it will begin rewarding students who choose non-science majors in college who may have an edge when it comes to interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence, but whose educational backgrounds outside of science have traditionally given them a slight disadvantage when it comes to the MCAT and other science-focused measures in medical school admissions. This new MCAT will tip the scales, even if slightly, in favor of future doctors with people skills.

Coupled with developments in medical curricula that teach medical students how to communicate more effectively, how to read between the lines in a medical interview, and how to act in difficult emotional situations, this new MCAT is an important step in assuring that the next generation of doctors is well-prepared when "the production asks them to take the stage."