Paging Dr. Welby: Future Doctors Need Emotional Intelligence Skills

By Steve Klasko, MD

As healthcare transforms itself, so must medical education. It’s not enough for medical schools simply to push for expanded enrollment. We need to provide the keys for transformation: students ready for teamwork, creativity, negotiation, communication. Those skills will build the future. That’s why we started a program that turns traditional med school priorities upside down — a program that says prospective students need empathy and emotional intelligence skills, not just high MCATs and biochemistry GPAs. A program that reflects the need for a new kind of doctor — the kind who can help lead the transformation that health care so badly needs; the kind who knows it’s time to try something different.

That’s exactly what we’re doing at USF Health.

The new MD program we’ve launched is called SELECT (Scholarly Excellence, Leadership Experiences, Collaborative Training.) Our second class of SELECT students has just started, and they’ve already proven the program a success: This year we had 1,600 applicants for our 44 spots in SELECT. Our new students come from such institutions as Stanford and Emory and have proven themselves as leaders, from working on new medical devices to helping set up mobile medical clinics in Costa Rica.

SELECT is designed as a physician leadership program. We want to train the doctors who shape the future of health care. One of the things that make SELECT unusual is that we’re partnering with a hospital 1,100 miles away: Lehigh Valley Health Network, one of the nation’s best.

But here’s what else sets SELECT apart: We really choose our students based on more than their cognitive scores.

A key factor in their admission was looking at their emotional intelligence. We believe tomorrow’s leaders need empathy and compassion to care about their patients. Those with social skills and emotional intelligence will be better able to lead change and work better in teams. Team-building skills are becoming increasingly important in today’s complex health environment, which demands better coordination among health professionals. As surgeon and author Dr. Atul Gawande puts it, we need doctors who work best in pit crews, not as lone cowboys.

To find students with those skills for SELECT, we started by making sure they meet all our high standards for cognitive skills. Yes, they still have those high MCATS and science GPAs, but we looked for other characteristics as well.

We realize that we don’t have the metrics for emotional intelligence yet, but we know we need to start and allow experience and theory to develop the right measures. So we worked with Teleos Leadership Institute, founded by two best-selling authors and scholars from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, to develop a rigorous behavioral interview process. These probing, in-depth interviews are designed with unique scenarios and lines of questioning to seek out those who exhibit such characteristics as collaboration, adaptability, and emotional self-control.

Once our students enroll, they will develop these skills further. The SELECT curriculum adds special leadership and emotional intelligence training programs to the traditional medical school curriculum.

The importance of developing non-cognitive skills in younger students is the focus of Paul Tough’s new bestseller, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. Tough says that, while most schools focus on teaching and testing children’s cognitive skills, little attention is paid to developing the “performance character” skills that help students succeed as adults.

While Tough spends most of his time looking at how character skills can help poor children escape the traps of poverty, there are lessons here for educating our future doctors as well. In medical schools, we too have focused almost exclusively on selecting for cognitive skills. We haven’t thought much about the fact that in today’s health care environment, the students who succeed will be those who are most successful at thinking of the needs of others — both those of their patients and of their colleagues.

Instead, we unwittingly program doctors to join a cult. We train doctors to become autonomous, hierarchical, competitive, and non-creative. Yet what we need more of are doctors who are collaborative, creative team-builders.

Our students know this too. In a recent research survey we did, 60 percent of new physicians surveyed said they didn’t learn what they needed to know in medical school.

If we do a better job of listening to them — and to our patients — we can do better. We can create an environment in which finding “a doctor who cares” won’t be a difficult task.

It will be routine.

—Steve Klasko is the CEO of USF Health and Dean of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine. He blogs at Tomorrow’s Health and you can follow him on Twitter @SKlasko.

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