Is IQ overrated in medicine?

Medical schools heavily weigh standardized test scores and general intelligence in their admissions process, but in doing so they have "underemphasized—if not totally ignored—emotional intelligence," which is a key factor to becoming a good and caring physician, Ezekiel Emanuel and Emily Gudbranson argue in a JAMA viewpoint.

The excessive focus on IQs

Emanuel and Gudbranson, of the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, write that both the grade point averages and MCAT scores of students admitted to U.S. medical schools have risen in recent years. But Emanuel and Gudbranson note that, while test scores and grades measure an important kind of intelligence, those metrics alone do not offer a complete or accurate assessment of a student's potential to be a good physician.

"In medicine, IQ is necessary to master and critically assess the volume and complexity of information integral to contemporary medical education," they write, but an IQ score may not fully measure other important capabilities, such as real-world problem-solving skills and leadership ability.

"Knowing how to calculate the speed of a ball rolling down an inclined plane or recalling the Bamford-Stevens reaction are totally irrelevant to being an astute diagnostician," they write, "much less an oncologist sensitively discussing end-of-life care preferences with a patient who has developed metastatic cancer." Similarly, they write, there is no guarantee that a physician with a high IQ can lead a multidisciplinary team or help patients adopt healthier behaviors.

The importance of emotional intelligence

In particular, the authors argue, "success in medicine is ultimately more about emotional intelligence," or EQ, defined as "the ability to manage emotions and interact effectively with others."  

"People with high EQs are sensitive to the moods and temperaments of others, display empathy, and appreciate multiple perspectives when approaching situations." This ability, they argue, is critical to a physician's success.

Specifically, Emanuel and Gudbranson write, a successful clinician should possess three capabilities:

  • The ability to lead a team;
  • The ability to coordinate care; and
  • The ability to "engender behavior change in patients and colleagues."

To master all three capabilities, the best physician must have "both an adequate IQ and a high EQ," Emanuel and Gudbranson write. But in the medical school admissions process, EQ is often undervalued.

How med schools can emphasize EQ

To better capture the skills that would-be doctors need to succeed, Emanuel and Gudbranson write, medical school admissions committees should eliminate "the irrelevant premed requirements of organic chemistry, physics, and calculus, while requiring training in psychology and leadership."

Further, they write, medical schools should incorporate EQ evaluations into the admissions process, such as by "incorporating model negotiation sessions as part of the interview process."

Finally, Emanuel and Gudbranson argue that medical schools should change their curriculums to improve training in areas that require a high EQ, such as teaching students "how to listen to their patients, encourage behavioral changes, and coordinate with team members in clinical settings."

They conclude, "If medicine hopes to identify and train a phenomenal next generation of caring, effective physicians who can lead multidisciplinary teams and induce patient behavior change, the medical profession must start by recognizing the importance of EQ" (Emanuel/Gudbranson, JAMA, 1/29).

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