Study finds HPAT does not accurately measure empathy

The study, which was published in the British Medical Journal Open assessed empathy levels in 290 undergraduate medical students from UCC

A new study has shown that the Health Professions Admission Test (HPAT) does not accurately test empathetic or interpersonal skills.


The study, which was published in the British Medical Journal Open, assessed empathy levels in 290 undergraduate medical students from University College Cork (UCC). The students were asked to answer a questionnaire regarding their interpersonal skills. Their responses were then measured using the widely used Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy.


It was shown that there was no correlation between the students’ HPAT scores and how they scored in the questionnaires.


According to the study, “the current data 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.”


The HPAT’s own website states that the exam tests students’ “ability to understand the thoughts, behaviour and/or intentions of people”.


Both HPAT scores and scores on the Jefferson Scale did vary according to gender. While males generally tend to score better on the first and third sections of the HPAT (problem solving and non-verbal reasoning), females score better on the second section which tests interpersonal understanding. Females also scored higher overall on the Jefferson Scale than males did.


The HPAT was first introduced in 2009 in order to identify students whose characteristics would make them ideal doctors and to broaden entry access into the study of medicine. However, the HPAT’s effectiveness has often been disputed since its introduction as only one of the three sections assesses the student’s interpersonal skills.


According to Dr. Donnchadh O’Sullivan, who was involved in the study, “communication skills and empathy” are among the most important and vital qualities in aspiring doctors. He has also suggested that an interview process or “situational judgement testing” would be a more appropriate method of judging whether or not a student is suited to study medicine.


The study did not show that empathy levels decline during a medical student’s time studying, which has been suggested by previous studies.


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