Creating a Successful Physician is More Than Creating a Successful Test Taker

by Susan B. Greger, M.D., Clinical Knowledge Assessment Manager | August 11, 2021

In their training, physicians face many tests: the MCAT, countless basic science exams throughout their first two years of medical school, shelf exams associated with clinical rotations, and the USMLE and COMLEX-USA medical licensing exams. Yet, creating a successful physician is much more than imparting the skills and knowledge necessary to ace exams. They must also develop core competencies that will help them provide a consistent standard of care, as well as meet the real-world challenges of a medical career.

Successful Physicians are Trained to Develop “Competencies”

Medical training requires a combination of knowledge, skills, ability, and behavioral attitudes―qualities known as competencies. Any seasoned educator will confirm that competencies are much more than straightforward learning objectives. They represent a fusion of knowledge from textbooks, hands-on learning, and clinical experience in a variety of settings. The National Institutes of Health defines competencies as, “the knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors that contribute to individual and organizational performance,” and these skills are essential for the long-term success of a physician.

What Competencies Do Physicians Truly Need?

The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, in 1999, released a list of critical competencies needed to become a physician. These “core competencies” have now been incorporated into undergraduate and graduate medical training, as well as medical board certification. The core competencies include:

●  Practice-Based Learning and Improvement, requiring the medical student and physician to continually self-assess deficiencies in their knowledge to improve medical care.

●  Patient Care and Procedural Skills, which involves gathering the essential information about the patient, making appropriate diagnoses and treatment decisions, prescribing and/or performing essential medical procedures, counseling patients and their loved ones, and providing effective health maintenance and prevention guidance. These skills are honed during clinical experiences, either in person or through virtual simulations.

●  Systems-Based Practice, which refers to awareness and responsiveness to the larger context of the healthcare system, to be able to provide high-quality healthcare.

●  Medical Knowledge deals with the physician’s knowledge of established and evolving medical information, as well as its successful application to patient care.

●  Interpersonal and Communication Skills help the physician work effectively within the medical team and in communicating to patients and loved ones.

●  Professionalism relates to behaving professionally and in a culturally competent manner while maintaining emotional, physical, and mental health in pursuit of personal and professional growth.

Many of the abovementioned core competencies can be learned in a classroom setting―things like medical knowledge, practice-based learning and improvement, or even procedural skills related to patient care. However, many of these competencies must be derived through clinical experience or even outside of medical training―including interpersonal and communication skills, professionalism, and systems-based practice.

Soft Skills Help Establish Medical Competencies

Medicine is a field requiring ongoing learning and practice to develop and retain competencies. In order to be a successful physician, students will need more than technical knowledge. Soft skills, such as communication, patient education, professionalism, and collaboration are also crucial to providing patient-centered medical care.

Soft skills help establish cultural competency, establish effective teamwork and communication, and demonstrate reliability and adaptability. A medical environment characterized by teamwork, communication, and reliability improves outcomes for patients. So does an understanding of the patient’s cultural background. Thus, it is clear that soft skills are foundational to create a successful physician.

So, how can educators help students develop soft skills throughout their medical education?

Ways Medical Students Can Develop Soft Skills

Educators can encourage their students to look outside of the traditional classroom to learn and hone the soft skills they will need in a variety of ways. Here are three specific examples of skills medical educators can champion to help students develop needed soft skills for core competencies:

  • Gain the Skills Needed to Run a Successful Practice

Encourage students to take business courses so that they can develop the business and finance skills needed to run a successful practice. Spending time in a clinical practice--not with the physician, but with office managers, nurses, and medical assistants--will also provide a foundation for understanding how a successful practice truly operates.

  • Volunteer in the Local Community

Research shows that physicians who are active in their local community and have a local cultural understanding are more likely to provide high-quality care for their patients. By participating in volunteer work, learning more about social justice issues, and experiencing what life is like for members of their community, medical students can develop cultural competency, particularly as related to providing high-quality care for historically marginalized communities.

  • Understand Patient Psychology and Develop Emotional Intelligence

Students can take psychology courses to understand decision-making and learn more about why patients make certain choices. They can also learn how to motivate and support patients and their loved ones. 

Additionally, students can utilize their own experiences to be more compassionate in the provision of care. Emotional intelligence (EQ) refers to the ability to “understand, use, and manage your own emotions in positive ways to relieve stress, communicate effectively, empathize with others, overcome challenges and defuse conflict.” Working to boost one’s EQ skills not only helps in providing patient-centered care, but improves teamwork, communication, and professional skills.

The following topics are often covered in medical school, but can also be supported with outside training:

  • Do “Detective Work”

Physicians-in-training can engage in “detective work” to read between the lines, i.e. what are patients not telling them? By practicing detective work, physicians can learn to ask the right questions and practice empathy. 

  • Learn Coaching Skills

Medical trainees can learn coaching skills to help guide patients towards their goals and keep them motivated. Mentoring programs can be useful in this effort. Students can find a mentor or become a mentor!

  • Teach Others and Remain Lifelong Learners

Staying informed on the latest advancements in medicine, in culture, and in life can and will also help physicians remain lifelong learners.

Kaplan Medical has numerous tools that can help students not only build the knowledge necessary to succeed on their board exams, but also to build the competencies necessary to become better physicians. To learn more about the services that Kaplan can provide across the educational spectrum, contact your regional representative or request a demo today.

Additionally, you can read more articles on our Kaplan Medical Blog

I was born and raised in a small town just north of Salt Lake City, Utah, and was the first person in my family to obtain a college degree. My career path has been most influenced by an interest in both science and the humanities, and I attended Utah State University where I graduated with degrees in Biology and Liberal Arts and Sciences. Becoming a physician was the natural intersection of those interests, and I went on to graduate from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis before completing my residency in Family Medicine at U.C.L.A.  I practiced for 15 years and held faculty positions at several residency programs, primarily working with underserved patients in community health settings. I then transitioned out of clinical medicine to better balance a busy life with my three teenage children, bioengineer husband, and elderly in-laws (not to mention our 2 very demanding cats!)

See more posts by Susan B. Greger, M.D., Clinical Knowledge Assessment Manager