Bond introduces Australia-first emotional intelligence test for medical students

July 19, 2018

(L-R) Eileen Truong, Professor Kirsty Forrest, Saleha Khan and Sebastien Chin

Bond University has become the first in Australia to introduce emotional intelligence (EI) testing as part of the selection process for its sought-after medical program, with the aim of enrolling a cohort with the strong social skills needed to succeed at university and in the workplace.

The first intake of students selected through the new process, which places importance on both IQ and EI, commenced their degrees at the independent Gold Coast University in the May trimester, with academics already commenting the students 'feel different'.

Unlike other Australian universities, all places in Bond's medical program are offered to full-fee paying domestic students, with more than 1,000 applications received annually for 120 places.

New Dean of Medicine, Professor Kirsty Forrest, who took up her appointment this year, and Senior Teaching Fellow and Registered Clinical Psychologist, Dr Amy Bannatyne, were among the team that was instrumental in the introduction of the new EI testing.

Professor Forrest said the EI test had resulted in places being offered to students from a wider band of the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) - which had been pushed higher each year due to the strong competition for places.

"Selection for medical school is extremely competitive and around the country, and indeed the world, there are far more students who apply than places available," she said.

"Different universities use different methods to select students and primarily it is based on academic performance - and that will always be the case. At the moment, students literally need to be top-of-the-top, with the band becoming increasingly narrow.

"Last year, you needed an ATAR of 99, but the fact is you don't need an academic score that high to be a good doctor. We are slightly concerned that medical programs are attracting people who think you only need academic intelligence to become a good doctor, and that is simply not true.

"Emotional intelligence plays such a critical role in a career in medicine. You need to be able to work in a team, to change behaviour, and to display kindness, consideration and empathy."

Professor Forrest said in the past Bond University had selected the top 240 students, based on their ATAR, from all applicants to take part in an interview process - an internationally accepted practice known as multi-mini interviews - from which the top 120 were offered a spot.

This year, it invited the top 540 students - each with an ATAR of 96 or above - to take the EI test, with the top 240 performers then participating in the interview process, and the top 120 offered places.

"It has diversified our student cohort. They are still in the top five per cent of the population academically, but anecdotally our experienced interviewers are saying they 'feel different'," she said.

"When waiting to be debriefed following the interviews, this group was chatting and lively, compared with previous years where the feeling has been much more competitive."

Dr Bannatyne said the emotional intelligence of candidates was assessed using a well known and accepted ability-based test. The testing was conducted by an external Australian-owned organisation who specialise in the development and delivery of psychometric assessments.

"The test looks at how well an individual can recognise, understand, and manage emotions in oneself and in others, and how this information is then used to guide an individual’s thinking and actions," she said.

"Similar to a test of general intelligence, you get a score. There is some evidence, however, that this score is not necessarily fixed and that with appropriate opportunities an individual can enhance their EI capacity within a range.

"We are now looking at ways to use the EI test in future learning, including discussing with students how they can enhance their EI through various activities such as self-reflective practice, emotion awareness and regulation activities, understanding emotional facilitation of thinking, and communication skills training.

"Our message is that students need to work on developing their emotional intelligence in the same way they work on their academic performance, emphasising the fact that both IQ and EI are important to be a successful doctor."

Eileen Truong, 29 - who has just begun her medical degree, after being among the first students to undertake the EI test as part of the selection process - said she believed it added a new dimension.

"Being a good doctor is more than what you can remember from a text book, so it's refreshing to know the university not only values our high grades, but our ability to connect with people too," said Eileen.

"Doctors need to constantly communicate with fellow staff, patients and family members, so being equipped with the tools for effective communication is of paramount importance." 

Fellow medical student, Saleha Khan, 19, agreed the EI test was essential, as doctors needed the ability 'to empathise and connect'.

"I am really glad Bond factors this test into selection. When you meet the cohort, you immediately recognise the welcoming personalities and ease of interaction among the students," she said.

Sebastien Chin, 19 - who has also just begun his medical degree at Bond - said the EI test 'made a lot of sense'.

"A doctor needs to be socially capable and able to work with others. A large part of that is empathy, and if you can't be empathetic and read emotions, then I don't think the healthcare system is somewhere you should be working," he said.

Professor Forrest said while some people called it 'naval gazing', skills such as the ability to recognise your own emotions, helping others understand theirs, displaying a breadth of emotional vocabulary and communicating well, were critical to a medical career.

"The flow-on is producing medical professionals with a better bedside manner and who are better prepared to work in a team environment, as in healthcare you never work on your own," she said.

"It is also about kindness. We believe that the competitiveness just to get into a medical program can result in students being very unkind to each other.

"The way they talk and deal with each other carries on to how they deal with other people, and if they are kinder to each other during their years of education - and kind to themselves - it will lead to them displaying compassion when they are in the workforce and dealing with patients.

"There has often been a perception that medical professionals should display no emotion, and this is likely contributing to the higher instances of poor wellbeing and mental health issues in medical students and practising doctors.

"There has been talk of how medical school 'knocks' the empathy out of students and we are looking at the bigger picture of how to ensure that is not the case. We are discussing the possibility of changing the way we test students to put the focus on the learning process rather than assessment, so we remove some of that competitiveness."

Professor Forrest said Bond University would now be paying close attention to benchmarks, including the suggestion the group of students could perform better in skills such as communication and team work.

"The next step is to evaluate and measure if and how the EI test has made a difference," she said.

Bond University also this year appointed Registered Psychologist, Felicity Miller, as Manager of Student Health and Wellbeing, making it the first in Australia to introduce a proactive and preventative counselling service for all health and medical students.  

At Bond University, students can complete their Bachelor of Medical Studies and a Doctor of Medicine (MD) in four years and eight months through the University's unique trimester model.