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Personality factors and medical training: a review of the literature


Eva Mary Doherty, National Surgical Training Centre, The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, 121 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland. Tel: 00353 1 402 2245; Fax: 00353 1 402 2459; E-mail:


Medical Education 2011: 45: 132–140

Context  It has been acknowledged that certain personality characteristics influence both medical students’ and doctors’ performance. With regard to medical students, studies have been concerned with the role of personality, and performance indicators such as academic results and clinical competence. In addition, the link between personality and vulnerability to stress, which has implications for performance, has been investigated at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Most of the studies cited in the literature were published before the year 2000. The authors therefore undertook a literature search to determine whether any prospective systematic studies have been published since 2000.

Methods  A review of the literature for 2000–2009 was performed, using the databases MEDLINE, PsycINFO and CINAHL. The search terms used were ‘personality’, ‘performance’, ‘stress’ and ‘medical student’. Specific inclusion criteria required studies to be cohort studies carried out over a minimum period of 2 years, which measured medical student scores on valid and reliable personality tests, and used objective measures of performance and stress.

Results  The authors identified seven suitable studies. Four of these looked at personality factors and academic success, one looked at personality factors and clinical competence, and two looked at personality factors and stress. The main personality characteristic repeatedly identified in the literature was conscientiousness.

Conclusions  The personality trait known as conscientiousness has been found to be a significant predictor of performance in medical school. The relationship between personality and performance becomes increasingly significant as learners advance through medical training. Additional traits concerning sociability (i.e. extraversion, openness, self-esteem and neuroticism) have also been identified as relevant, particularly in the applied medical environment. A prospective national study with the collaboration of all medical schools would make it possible to further investigate these important but initial findings.