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Is Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) Premedical Education Marginalized in the Medical School Admission Process? A Review and Contextualization of the Literature

Hall, Justin N. MSc, MPH; Woods, Nicole PhD; Hanson, Mark D. MD, MEd, FRCPC

doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000000284

Purpose To investigate the performance outcomes of medical students with social sciences and humanities (SSH) premedical education during and beyond medical school by reviewing the literature, and to contextualize this review within today’s admission milieu.

Method From May to July 2012, the lead author searched the PubMed, MEDLINE, and PsycINFO databases, and reference lists of relevant articles, for research that compared premedical SSH education with premedical sciences education and its influence on performance during and/or after medical school. The authors extracted representative themes and relevant empirical findings. They contextualized their findings within today’s admission milieu.

Results A total of 1,548 citations were identified with 20 papers included in the review. SSH premedical education is predominately an American experience. For medical students with SSH background, equivalent academic, clinical, and research performance compared with medical students with a premedical science background is reported, yet different patterns of competencies exist. Post-medical-school equivalent or improved clinical performance is associated with an SSH background. Medical students with SSH backgrounds were more likely to select primary care or psychiatry careers. SSH major/course concentration, not SSH course counts, is important for admission decision making. The impact of today’s admission milieu decreases the value of an SSH premedical education.

Conclusions Medical students with SSH premedical education perform on par with peers yet may possess different patterns of competencies, research, and career interests. However, SSH premedical education likely will not attain a significant role in medical school admission processes.

Mr. Hall is a third-year medical student and Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) Program scholar, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Woods is a scientist, The Wilson Centre, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Dr. Hanson is associate dean, Admissions and Student Finances, Undergraduate Medical Education, and associate professor, Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Funding/Support: None reported.

Other disclosures: Dr. Hanson reports that he has received meals paid for by MCAT staff in his capacity as associate dean, Undergraduate Medical Education, Admissions and Student Finances, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Ethical approval: Reported as not applicable.

Previous presentations: Components of these data were previously presented at the 2012 Richard K. Reznick Wilson Centre Research Day, October 2012, Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and the 2013 Canadian Conference on Medical Education, April 2013, Québec City, Québec, Canada.

Correspondence should be addressed to Dr. Hanson, Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, 1 King’s College Circle, Room 2135, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5S 1A1; telephone: (416) 946-7972; e-mail:

© 2014 by the Association of American Medical Colleges