In my blog from 2/4/11 "Why do we put so much import on the MCAT?", I discussed some of the negative characteristics that can be associated with a higher MCAT. The conclusion of the article by Dr. Gough1 was that students with higher MCATS and a scientific orientation were found to "less adept in interpersonal skills, less articulate, narrower in interests, and less adaptable than their fellows".
Wow! I don't think those are characteristics that I want in my doctor. What about you?
What are the characteristics that we want in our medical students? We want them to be great at science, right? On average, academic performance in undergraduate classes only predicted about 9% of the variance in medical school performance.2 What about MCAT? We want them to have a high MCAT, right? Well, a high MCAT is good at predicting performance on the USMLE step 1 and preclinical grades,3 but as someone who is really smart once told me "we are not trying to make step 1 passers".
Sade and colleagues asked this same question a few years ago. Their specific question was to identify the specific characteristics that are important qualities of a superior physician. They also asked which of these qualities are hardest to teach in the medical curriculum. They based their work on a study by Price, et al4 who had previously generated a list of positive traits associated with a superior physician.
Dr. Sade took this list of traits and showed them to the faculty of the College of Medicine at the University of South Carolina. The faculty were asked to rate the personal qualities on a scale of 1-10, where 1 is non-teachable and 10 was easily teachable. The survey was sent to all of the faculty at the college of medicine. They also asked a select group of experienced medical educators to take the survey. There was remarkable agreement between the faculty, greater than 80% inter-rater reliability. There was also a high correlation between the basic science faculty's ratings and the clinical faculty's ratings of the importance of characteristics (r=0.87, p<0.001) and the teachability of characteristics (r=0.93, p<0.001).
The outcome of this survey was a list that ranked the characteristics from 1 to 87. Each characteristic was given a rank for importance and for difficulty in teaching. The authors converted the rankings to a Z-score. (***Note: This was my favorite line in the manuscript...) "The teachability Z-score was subtracted from the importance Z-score, and the combined Z-scores were multiplied by 10 and added to 50." This gave a combined score that they called the NonTeachable-Importance Index (NTII). The NTII gives you a list of characteristics that are ranked from highest to lowest based on importance and the difficulty of teaching it to medical students.
That sounds like a good list of pre-matriculant variables to me. If we can't easily teach it but it is important then obviously we should select students that have these characteristics before coming to medical school.
Using the NTII ranking, some of the characteristics are obvious: (1) is emotionally stable; (2) is a person of unquestionable integrity; (5) is unusually intelligent; and (6) has sustained genuine concern for patients during their illness. Some are less obvious but seem really important: (9) is motivated primarily by idealism, compassion, and service; (14) is able and willing to learn from others; (17) is observant; and (18) is adaptable. The list goes on from 1 to 87.
The characteristic that was ranked as the most difficult to teach was: is unusually intelligent. The next four were: (2) is naturally energetic and enthusiastic; (3) is imaginative and creative; (4) has a warm, friendly, outgoing personality; and (5) is motivated by sheer liking of people.
So why are we still choosing medical students based on the MCATs and GPAs? Maybe, we should be looking at these factors.
Next time, I am going to write about personality factors that influence medical student performance.
(1) Gough HG. Some Predictive Implications of Premedical Scientific Competence and Preferences. J Med Educ 1978; 53: 291-300.
(2) Ferguson E, James D, Madeley L. Factors associated with success in medical school: systematic review of the literature. BMJ 2002; 324: 952–7.
(3) Donnon T, Paolucci EO, Violato C. The predictive validity of the MCAT for medical school performance and medical board licensing examinations: a meta-analysis of the published research. Acad Med 2007; 82(1): 100-6.
(4) Price PB, et al. Measurement and predictors of physician performance: two decades of intermittently sustained research. Salt Lake City: Aaron Press, 1971; 121-149.