Personality key in predicting medical school success

Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Michael Rieder, left, and Mitch Rothstein, professor and chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Studies, were part of a recent study that looked at how certain personality traits have the potential to contribute to the development of successful and effective physicians. The study will soon be published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

Paul Mayne // Western NewsSchulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Michael Rieder, left, and Mitch Rothstein, professor and chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Studies, were part of a recent study that looked at how certain personality traits have the potential to contribute to the development of successful and effective physicians. The study will soon be published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

We may be putting an “unhealthy emphasis” on Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) results and grade point averages (GPA) when it comes to picking the next best physician, according to one Western researcher.

High marks are one thing, but they’re not a solid predictor a medical student will be a great doctor, said Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor Michael Rieder.

“A lot of the problems that occur (for students) surface in clerkship. I was frustrated, being unable to predict them,” said Rieder, who, at one time, ran the clerkship program at Schulich. “It’s not that (students) are not smart enough to do what they do; it’s just that they’re unable to, for a variety of reasons. They have personality issues or performance issues in domains other than the straight answering of multiple choice questions.”

Admittance to medical school has traditionally been determined on the basis of a student’s performance on the MCAT and their GPA – both which assess cognitive ability – and a semi-structured interview, for non-cognitive skills.  But Rieder is concerned this strategy may not give us the physicians we really want.

“They (admission officers) look at the MCAT and it predicts the MCC (Medical Council of Canada) test, but all that means is if you’re good at writing big exams once, you’re good at it twice,” said Rieder, chair of the Department of Paediatrics. “But that follows the fallacious assumption that ability to score on multiple choice exams has anything to do with your ability in a clinical environment.”

Other predictors of capability are necessary, added Rieder, who took part in a multi-year, Western-led study, How important is personality in the selection of medical school students?, soon to be published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences.

Approximately 300 first-year medical students were followed through their third-year clerkship. The study looked to assess whether personality traits may contribute to the success of a physician, potentially enabling medical schools to supplement the traditional predictors of medical school performance.

Research found personality traits, such as conscientiousness, achievement, calmness, social confidence, tolerance and responsibility did, in fact, lead to a better predictability for the potential success of medical students.

Mitch Rothstein, professor and chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Studies, was also part of the new study. He has done similar personality measure studies related to business students and said while personality traits aren’t the primary marker of capability, they are worthy of consideration.

“You can be smart and write a hell of an exam, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do the job,” he said. “(Predictability of performance) was all in the grades. But you add a personality equation, and it adds a little bit of predictability. Performance in the clerkship, the behavioral and skill utilization – it was all personality.”

So, why does this matter? Knowing some of the personality traits that predict capability in a medical setting, and considering these alongside test scores when admitting students to medical school, can go a long way in ensuring we are training the best possible physicians for the future, Rieder said.

When students whose personality might not be the best fit for a medical career attend medical school, they sometimes make mistakes. They sometimes require more supervision and support, which may take away from resources available for other students, he explained.

“The challenge we have is, of the 175 kids at Schulich that we pick out of the 400 we interview, they all have good GPAs. Are they the right 175?,” Rieder asked.

Rothstein likewise sees the value of using personality traits as a measure of capability when considering potential medical students.

“(Personality) is not going to contribute to passing those exams; it’s going to contribute to the behavioural skills that you and I see when we go to see our doctor,” he said, adding while traditional predictors suggest no correlation with academic and clerkship performance, this more recent study showed personality testing incremented the prediction of both academic and clerkship performance by 8.2 per cent and 7.8 per cent, respectively.

The study helps inform our understanding of the factors that predict success in medical school and that personality measures have the potential to contribute to the development of successful and effective physicians, Rothstein added.

“This might help to generate discussion. It opens up dialogue and we consider this important,” he said.

While medical schools differ in their respective admissions processes and requirements, Schulich could benefit from this type of discussion in order to bring in the best possible future physicians, Rieder added.

“It requires will, resolve and depends on how comfortable we are to have that discussion,” he said.