Starting today, the country's 16,000 graduating medical school students will have one more test they must pass before getting their license to practice. Many argue it is one of the most critical tests for potential doctors: one that grades their bedside manner, or how well they communicate with patients.
John Catanzaro is a third-year medical student at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in New York. With an actor playing the role of an ailing patient with diabetes, Catanzaro must try to identify the disease, while his every word and movement are videotaped.
"This [exercise] gives us a range of different patients with different settings to see how we're actually doing," Catanzaro said.
It also helps him prepare for the new national skills test — a grueling, daylong exam in which he will confront 12 actors with 12 different feigned ailments — that will now be part of the licensing exam for every medical student in the country.
This new test is the latest attempt to address a problem patients have been complaining about for decades: Doctors who may be technically skilled but who have a poor bedside manner.
The clinical skills test grades a medical student's ability to communicate clearly with patients, listen intently without interrupting, and perform a detailed physical exam.
"This is fundamentally a question of patient safety," said Dr. Peter Scoles of the National Board of Medical Examiners. "When physicians don't listen and patients don't understand, mistakes happen."
Exam Adds to Students' Costs
The American Medical Association, representing many of the country's doctors, argues that a national exam is not the answer. The AMA says it will cost students more than $1,000 each, for a test many have already taken.
"We believe clinical skills are best assessed in medical schools. In fact, three-quarters of all medical schools have a clinical assessment exam already in place," said the AMA's Dr. John Armstrong.
But national medical examiners say there's too much variation from school to school.
"Patients in any state of the union have the right to expect that physicians, no matter where they've trained, have the same set of skills, tested and certified in the same way," Scoles said.
Medical students will have plenty of opportunity to get it right. They can retake the exam up to six times.