Medical school bucks empathy trend

Yale Medical School officials say they look for empathy and compassion in their applicants, which contradicts the trend found in a new Kaplan survey that says medical school admissions officers are largely unconcerned by tales of personal illness in making admissions decisions.

A recent survey by Kaplan, which provides standardized test-prep courses, found that 90 percent of medical school admissions officers in the nationwide survey said it is common for students to discuss personal or family illness in their applications. But about three-quarters of administrators said such anecdotes do not affect whether students are admitted. At the Yale School of Medicine (which did not participate in the survey), though, admissions administrators said that personal accounts, which demonstrate an applicant’s empathy, could help applications in certain situations.

“When they provide that narrative, it helps us to determine how compassionate they are,” said Mary Warner, associate dean of the Yale School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program.

The survey, which included 83 medical schools across the United States, was conducted this August as a part of Kaplan’s annual review of admissions officers across the nation. The study also found that 69 percent of admissions officers interviewed said it is common for students to mention that they have family members who are doctors.

At the Yale School of Medicine, many applicants do mention personal experience with illness in their application essays, Director of Admissions at Yale School of MedicineRichard Silverman said.But the effects of such anecdotes depend on the quality of the essays, he said.

“We’re looking for people who learn from their experiences and achieve some depth of understanding that they didn’t have previously,” Silverman said.

Amjed Saffarini, executive director of pre-health programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, said that many admissions officers surveyed “shrug off” stories about personal encounters with illness because they read so many. In his experience, admissions officers are more concerned about the qualifications of applicants, he said.

“Our interpretation is that talking about a personal or family illness or about your family medical profession pedigree is a bit like eating chicken soup to treat a cold,” Saffarini said. “It probably doesn’t help much, but it doesn’t hurt either.”

Another finding of the survey was that nearly half of the respondants said the MCAT should evaluate integrity and empathy.

But Warner said the MCAT, a test that all medical school hopefuls must take,could not test levels of empathy or integrity because, she said, those topics do not lend themselves to multiple-choice questions. Moral reasoning must be tested orally or in an essay format, she said.

Saffarini said the Association of American Medical Colleges, which designs the MCAT, is exploring ways to test for integrity. In 2005 the MCAT included a communications skills section in which students watched a video and were asked to give the best responses to situations presented in the videos, he said. Saffarini added that the Association has not released the results of the 2005 pilot program, and the MCAT has not included a similar section since then. The Association is still a long way from testing for qualities such as compassion and integrity, Silverman said.

Felicity Lenes MED ’13 said she thinks empathy is a crucial trait for doctors.

“I don’t know how you could have a productive, meaningful, mutually trusting patient-physician relationship without it,” she said.

Lenes said her father, who is a physician, nearly died when she was young, but she decided not to mention it in her application. She said her father’s work as a doctor contributed to her interest in medicine more than his near-death experience.

“I love and admire him and the way he makes people feel better,” she said.

There are 133 medical schools in the United States, 83 of which responded to Kaplan’s survey.

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