Nova Scotia

Dalhousie medical school boosts screening of would-be doctors

The medical school at Dalhousie University is now screening prospective students for character traits such as empathy and integrity, following high-profile cases at the Halifax university of would-be doctors in trouble with the law.

Closer look at character traits follows murder conviction of student William Sandeson

The medical school at Dalhousie University saw two of its would-be doctors charged with serious, separate crimes in 2015, leading to convictions for murder and weapons offences. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The medical school at Dalhousie University is now screening prospective students for character traits such as empathy and integrity, and has reviewed its admissions process for first time in 10 years, following high-profile cases at the Halifax university of would-be doctors in trouble with the law.

Starting with applications for entrance in 2018, Dalhousie is using an online video-based tool to look at the non-academic aspects of potential students, such as his or her empathy, integrity, resiliency, communication and collaboration skills. 

The same system — the Computerized Assessment for Sampling Personal Characteristics (CASPer) — is also used at schools including McMaster University in Hamilton and the University of Ottawa.

"Med students are expected to adhere to a code of conduct, and their fitness for the study and practice of medicine is continuously evaluated," said university spokesperson Janet Bryson in an email to CBC News. 

The changes follow the case of William Sandeson, who was convicted last week of first-degree murder in the death of fellow Dalhousie student Taylor Samson. Sandeson was just days away from beginning classes at the university's medical school when he shot and killed Samson in August 2015.

William Sandeson, seen here in a 2015 police photo, was convicted last week of first-degree murder in the death of fellow Dalhousie student Taylor Samson. (Court exhibit)

In an unrelated case that same month, medical student Stephen Tynes was charged with threatening to kill an associate dean and her daughter, along with others. The university banned Tynes from all campuses after he was charged. He was later convicted of weapons charges.

Bryson did not draw a direct link between those cases and changes to the admissions procedures. 

She said the academic history, extracurricular activities and references of medical school candidates were already being screened. Prospective students also underwent criminal background checks. (Neither Sandeson nor Tynes had criminal convictions prior to being admitted to Dalhousie.)

Past candidates have also been screened by a committee of about 20 faculty and students. Since 2009 would-be doctors have also been subject to a process the university calls the "multiple mini-interview."

"These are in-depth interviews where candidates interact with and are observed by evaluators in 10 separate stations," Bryson said. 

"The interviews are designed to assess candidates' personal qualities, like critical thinking, awareness of societal health issues, communication skills and ethics."

Admissions process reviewed

Last year, the dean of the medical school ordered an independent external review of the admissions process. The last such review was done a decade ago.

The review was led by Dr. Gus Grant, registrar of the Nova Scotia College of Physicians and Surgeons, the body which regulates and licenses doctors in the province.

Grant's review is now being circulated among faculty at the school and will be released publicly once the school has responded.

In his role as registrar, Grant has the ultimate decision over whether someone is allowed to practice medicine in Nova Scotia.

He told CBC News there is nothing in the regulations that would preclude someone with a murder conviction from applying for a medical licence. But Grant said part of his job is to protect the reputation of the profession in the eyes of the public.

"Refusing to licence a murderer could be based entirely on the public trust in the profession," Grant said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story indicated CASPer was implemented for the 2016-17 school year. This story has been updated to reflect that it was implemented for entrance in 2018.
    Jun 26, 2017 4:02 PM AT

About the Author

Blair Rhodes

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Blair Rhodes has been a journalist for more than 35 years, the last 27 with CBC. His primary focus is on stories of crime and public safety. He can be reached at blair.rhodes@cbc.ca