Medical Student Attitudes toward USMLE Step 1 and Health Systems Science - A Multi-Institutional Survey

Teach Learn Med. Apr-May 2021;33(2):139-153. doi: 10.1080/10401334.2020.1825962. Epub 2020 Dec 8.


Phenomenon: Because of its importance in residency selection, the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 occupies a critical position in medical education, stimulating national debate about appropriate score use, equitable selection criteria, and the goals of undergraduate medical education. Yet, student perspectives on these issues and their implications for engagement with health systems science-related curricular content are relatively underexplored. Approach: We conducted an online survey of medical students at 19 American allopathic medical schools from March-July, 2019. Survey items were designed to elicit student opinions on the Step 1 examination and the impact of the examination on their engagement with new, non-test curricular content related to health systems science. Findings: A total of 2856 students participated in the survey, representing 23.5% of those invited. While 87% of students agreed that doing well on the Step 1 exam was their top priority, 56% disagreed that studying for Step 1 had a positive impact on engagement in the medical school curriculum. Eighty-two percent of students disagreed that Step 1 scores should be the top item residency programs use to offer interviews. When asked whether Step 1 results should be reported pass/fail with no numeric score, 55% of students agreed, while 33% disagreed. The majority of medical students agreed that health systems science topics were important but disagreed that studying for Step 1 helped learn this content. Students reported being more motivated to study a topic if it was on the exam, part of a course grade, prioritized by residency program directors, or if it would make them a better physician in the future. Insights: These results confirm the primacy of the United States Medical Licensing Examination Step 1 exam in preclinical medical education and demonstrate the need to balance the objectives of medical licensure and residency selection with the goals of the broader medical profession. The survey responses suggest several potential solutions to increase student engagement in health systems science curricula which may be especially important after Step 1 examination results are reported as pass/fail.

Keywords: HSS; Medical education; USMLE; survey.