Medical schools are giving students coveted university training places based on "personality assessments" that include asking for their views on the Iraq war and gay marriage. Less academically gifted students are leapfrogging those with better marks by signing up for coaching programs that school them in handling the interview questions - fuelling critics' claims that the personality tests are skewing the selection process for the nation's future doctors away from the best and brightest.
Some interviewees have been asked to debate the rights and wrongs of providing in-vitro fertilisation services to gay people. Other questions include what applicants' parents do for a living and whether they went to a private school.
Some senior doctors are now accusing universities of attempting to "socially engineer" medical school intakes by giving preference to candidates who reflect the interviewers' views, allegedly often left-wing. The interviews - usually conducted by a panel comprising members of the public as well as doctors - often ask applicants to talk about their earliest memories, or discuss their biggest disappointment in life and how they coped with it. The process is supposed to identify "well-rounded personalities" that some claim will make better doctors.
Greg Deacon, president of the Australian Society of Anesthetists, described the situation as "absolutely appalling" and said he had been "speaking to a number of people who have been upset" at the way the interview process at a number of universities - including the University of NSW and Newcastle University - has been conducted. "Questions that are being asked, and that should never be asked, are questions such as 'What does your father do?', 'What does your mother do?', 'Where do you live?' and 'What school did you go to?'," Dr Deacon said. "If you went to a private school, or your father is a doctor, you are simply not going to be selected. The justification is the personal biases of those doing the interviews - they are trying to engineer the selection of medical undergraduates to further their own desires." He said he knew of one student whose HSC results put her in the state's top 40. "She was asked these questions," he said. "Because her father was a specialist doctor and went to private school, she didn't get in. It's hard to comprehend."
Dr Deacon said students' views on Iraq or gay marriage had "nothing to do with ability to be a doctor", and the risk was that interviewers would frown on candidates whose views clashed with their own. But these latest claims are rejected by the heads of Australia's 17 medical schools, which are already under pressure over assertions that the teaching of sciences, including anatomy and pathology, has been cut back to dangerous levels. The medical schools say interviewers are trained to judge an applicant's ability to reason and argue intelligently, not the position they take. But at least one university is scrapping the interview process after finding no evidence that the students selected by panels performed any better during the course.
And experts who assess personalities have cast doubts on the validity of the interviews. A NSW forensic psychiatrist, Julian Parmegiani, does personality assessments in situations such as parole applications and court-ordered psychiatric evaluations. He writes in the latest issue of NSW Doctor, the magazine of the NSW Australian Medical Association, that the interviews "will not identify altruistic, kind and empathetic doctors" but merely the students best able to divine what interviewers wanted to hear. "Successful students might be just a tad more psychopathic, manipulative and intent on recouping their investments," Dr Parmegiani writes.
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