Medical entry exam does measure ‘emotional intelligence’, say operators

Hpat administrators defend test after UCC doctors question its ability to measure empathy

The group behind the Hpat assessment, which is taken by students hoping to pursue a career in medicine, has defended the test’s ability to assess emotional intelligence, saying it successfully examines candidates’ “thoughts, feelings and behaviour”.

Research published last week by doctors from University College Cork found that Hpat assessment results were not consistent with students' self-reported empathy levels. The authors called for a review of the Hpat and underlined the importance of ensuring the State's future doctors would have the necessary emotional intelligence to communicate with patients in highly stressful situations.

The Australian Council for Education Research (Acer), which administers the Hpat test in Ireland, has defended the assessment's ability to gauge a student's thoughts and feeling through written text-based scenarios in its "cognitive ability" section. The group says empathy is a "multi-faceted construct" and research shows "there is no one measure that captures empathy in all its facets".

Judy Nixon, senior research fellow at Acer, says the second section of the Hpat test focuses on ‘interpersonal understanding’ rather than assessing a student’s overall empathy and is based on the Mayer-Salovey-Caruso emotional intelligence system (MSCEIT).


“The MSCEIT measures emotional intelligence as a cognitive ability, rather than a personal disposition or personality trait,” said Ms Nixon. She said the ability to show emotional intelligence was different to “affective empathy” and that some students surveyed for empathy might overstate their empathic behaviour in order to make a good impression.

Ms Dixon commended the UCC research into the role of empathy in clinic practice but added that further study was needed to understand the differences between emotional intelligence and empathy.

One of the authors of the report, Dr Donnchadh O’Sullivan, who took the Hpat in 2011, has recommended that the test be updated to include a mini-interview process or “situational judgement testing” to measure the empathy levels of incoming medical students.

“From the get-go in medicine we’re taught the most important trait we need is to be kind,” said Dr O’Sullivan. “It’s essential for getting on with other people and getting on with the patient.

“Once you’re in the workplace those who have the communication skills and empathy are the ones who really shine as good doctors. Work ethic and trustability, these are the most important skills.”

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast