dcyphr | Assessments of empathy in medical school admissions: what additional evidence is needed?


The leaders of medical education in the United States seem to be hesitant to support personality testing as a method of assessing medical school applicants. This is an opinion based editorial from Dr. Mohammadreza Hojat addressed why empathy should be considered in medical school admissions.

Why is personality relevant to medical school admissions?

Biologists and psychologists agree that personality can predict behavior. So, personality is important to medical school admissions because it can affect behaviors like scoring well academically and performing well clinically.

Which personality attributes would be more credible?

There are three requirements to choose which personality traits are relevant.

  1. The personality traits must be relevant to how well a patient is treated, which is the main goal of medicine.

  2. The personality trait must be measurable in an accurate way.

  3. There must be evidence based research that links the personality trait to the good outcomes of patients.

Is empathy a pertinent personality attribute?

Empathy meets all of the requirements listed above, so it is relevant to medical school admissions. First, empathy is defined as a cognitive understanding and want to help a patient. This is not an emotional response like sympathy, and is relevant to a patient’s care. Second, there is an accurate way to measure empathy, called the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE). The JSE specifically measures empathy in a healthcare setting and has data published on its reliability. Third, there is reliable data that correlated scores on the JSE with patient care and patient outcomes. It is unusual to have good data relating a test and patient outcomes, which makes the JSE more significant.

Persistent hesitation and resistance

Medical school admissions committees are still skeptical of using personality in admissions. Many believe that the personal statement, letters of recommendation, and essays are enough to predict an applicant’s personality. Others believe that personality tests are not valid enough to use to make decisions. Finally, some believe that students with high academic merit would potentially not be able to get into medical school if they were screened out due to personality tests.

What should be done?

Being a good doctor is more than just passing the exams, and it is up to the medical school to select those who would be good doctors. In the future, it is likely that medical schools may have legal obligations to the misconduct of their students or graduates who have become doctors without the proper personality development. To combat many issues we see in medicine today, create better care, and train better physicians, action should be taken to properly assess applicants using personality testing.