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Friday 23 February 2018

'Inaccurate to claim HPAT is not doing its job' - Body that administers exam

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Ralph Riegel

Ralph Riegel

THE Australian body which administers an Irish medical education screening test warned it was inaccurate to claim it was not doing what it was originally designed for.

The Australian Council for Education Research (ACER) administers the Health Professions Admissions Test (HPAT) which all Irish prospective medical students must sit alongside their Leaving Cert.

ACER insisted that the exam was a statistically reliable test.

HPAT was introduced in 2009 in a bid to assist Irish students with high empathy levels to enter the medical profession amid concern the old entry system was simply favouring students with top academic results in the Leaving Cert.

However, revealed last week that a study conducted amongst University College Cork (UCC) medical students and published in the British Medical Journal Open (BMJO), found no evidence that HPAT scores correlated with physician empathy assessments under the widely accepted Jefferson Scale.

The study was conducted amongst 290 medical students.

"This study suggests no clear link between scores on a selection test, the HPAT-Ireland, which is designed to assess several skill domains including interpersonal skills, and scores on a psychometric measure of empathy, at any point during medical education," the study concluded.

The study was conducted by Dr Donnchadh O'Sullivan, Dr Joseph Moran, Dr Paul Corcoran, Dr Siun O'Flynn, Dr Colm O'Tuathaigh and Dr Aoife O'Sullivan.

Only undergraduate students who had recently completed the HPAT were assessed.

"Empathy is an essential skill needed to become a good doctor. It's imperative to have an admissions test that assesses empathy," Dr O'Sullivan said.

HPAT had been the focus of earlier criticisms that it was inadvertently favouring students from wealthy backgrounds whose families were able to afford expensive preparatory courses for the HPAT, some of which cost almost €1,000.

However, Dr Judy Nixon, a senior research fellow at ACER, has taken issue with the conclusions drawn from the Irish study.

She warned it was "inaccurate" to claim HPAT was not doing its job.

"Research into the role of empathy in medical courses and clinical practice is to be applauded, as we know that empathy levels of practising doctors can have positive effects on patient health outcomes," she said.

"Nevertheless, it is inaccurate to conclude that the study has ‘found no evidence that (HPAT)…is doing what it was designed for."

"Empathy is a multifaceted construct that has both cognitive (ability-based) and affective (emotion- based) elements and research shows there is no one measure that captures empathy in all its facets."

Dr Nixon pointed out that affective empathy is a different construct from ability emotional intelligence.

HPAT, she said, is designed to assess construct interpersonal understanding rather than simple empathy.

"HPAT (Ireland) continues to be a statistically reliable test that is fit for the purpose of selecting those students who will succeed in their medical courses," she insisted.

"The differences between the constructs of emotional intelligence and empathy warrant further study, particularly in relation to medical courses and clinical practice."

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