Archive for October, 2011

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine Assesses Students Communication Skills Before Admitting

October 13, 2011

By Edward Leigh, MA

Have great grades?  Excel in science?  Thinking of medical school?  Think again!  Medical schools are now realizing that excellent academics are not enough to become a great doctor.  Communication skills and the ability to work in teams are vital.

Virginia Tech Carilion, located in Roanoke, Virginia, is one of the newest US medical schools (the school opened in August 2010).  Their medical school admission interviews go beyond the typical questions, “Why do you want to be a doctor?” The medical school has added a communication component to their admission interview process.  Great grades alone will not prepare prospective students for this part of the interview process; great “people skills” are needed.

Communication skills are more than “bedside manner.”  These skills also directly impact patient safety. According to the Joint Commission, “An estimated 80 percent of serious medical errors involve miscommunication between caregivers when patients are transferred or handed-off.”

This is how the medical school interview process incorporates communication skills:
• Candidates stand with their backs to doors.
• A bell rings and they turn around and read a sheet of paper taped to a door. The paper will have a scenario that requires communication and teamwork skills. (The school requests that the actual scenarios be kept secret.)
• After two minutes, the bell rings again and the candidate enters the room to discuss the ethical issue with an interviewer.
• The candidate has eight minutes to discuss that room’s issue. The interviewer scores each candidate with a number and sometimes a brief note.
• The process is then repeated several times.

The school administrators created questions that determine how well candidates think on their feet and their ability to work in teams. The interviews closely assess how well they respond when someone disagrees with them.  This is a critical skill in working with teams.

According to the school, “Candidates who jump to improper conclusions, fail to listen or are overly opinionated fare poorly because such behavior undermines teams. Those who respond appropriately to the emotional tenor of the interviewer or ask for more information do well in the new admissions process because such tendencies are helpful not only with colleagues but also with patients.”

“We are trying to weed out the students who look great on paper but haven’t developed the people or communication skills we think are important,” said Dr. Stephen Workman, associate dean for admissions and administration at Virginia Tech Carilion.

Dr. Harold Reiter, a professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, developed the system. He states, “Candidate scores on multiple mini interviews have proved highly predictive of scores on medical licensing exams three to five years later that test doctors’ decision-making, patient interactions and cultural competency.”

The emphasis on communication and teamwork does not end with the medical school interviews.  Medical students at Virginia Tech Carilion are required to take team-based classes.  The school also requires students to become involved in community projects.

The mini interviews help shift the discussion away from personal narratives (that are usually rehearsed) to focus on the student’s problem solving abilities.

For more information about Virginia Tech Carilion’s innovative medical school application process, please contact Dr. Stephen Workman at


Edward Leigh, MA, is the Founder and Director of the Center for Healthcare Communication.  The Center focuses on increasing patient satisfaction and decreasing the risk of medical errors. The Center offers high-impact training, consulting and one-on-one coaching. Edward Leigh’s newest book is Engaging Your Patients (due out in early 2012). or 1-800-677-3256