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Originally published Wednesday, February 22, 2012 at 7:07 PM

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Med school admission tests change to reflect new care realities

Bedside manner gets more emphasis.

Los Angeles Times

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Proficiency in organic chemistry may still be a necessary condition for getting into medical school. But starting in 2015, it will no longer be sufficient. In an effort to create a cadre of future physicians with improved bedside manners, the Association of American Medical Colleges has announced changes to the Medical College Admission Test (MCATs) that would plumb applicants' knowledge of psychology, sociology and biology, as well as their ethical and scientific reasoning skills.

"Being a good doctor isn't just about understanding science: it's about understanding people," said Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, president and chief executive of the Association of American Medical Colleges in a news conference Thursday. A philosophy major in his undergraduate days, Kirch said that the forthcoming changes "feel very momentous," paving the way for students from a wide range of backgrounds to the medical profession.

Starting in 2015, aspiring doctors will sit down for a six-and-a-half-hour test that will go beyond plumbing their knowledge of physics, general and organic chemistry and biochemistry. Two new sections will be added: one titled "Psychological, Sociological and Biological Foundations of Behavior," and another, "Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills." Those will require students to have a broad background in the social sciences and an ability to analyze, evaluate and apply information from subjects as diverse as philosophy and ethics, population health and cross-cultural studies.

Kirch said the changes are being announced well ahead of their implementation so that high school and college students considering a medical career can start diversifying their course loads now.

While Kirch said American patients have access to the best medical care in the world, they consistently rate physicians' "people skills" less highly. As research demonstrates the powerful influence that a person's mind, background and social networks have on his or her health, Kirch said that future physicians need to have a broad understanding of these fields if they are to be effective physicians.

And with a patient population growing older and more ethnically diverse than at any time in history, he said, tomorrow's doctors must have some academic exposure to fields beyond science.

The new MCATs, he said, "will help us move toward greater diversity" in the physician workforce and in the academic backgrounds from which they come. Those who majored in English literature, economics and history need not rule out the possibility of a career in medicine, he said. At the same time, the MCATs will continue to test students' grounding in college-level science, as well as their "scientific inquiry and reasoning skills."

The MCATs, currently a four-to-five-hour ordeal, now will take about six-and-a-half hours. In the process of overhauling the test, Kirch said, medical school admission directors urged the organization to drop the written portion of the test, which they said added no information on applicants that could not be gleaned by their course grades and other application material.

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