Background Humanism is a complex construct that defies simplistic measurement. How educators measure humanism shapes understanding and implications for learners. This systematic review sought to address the following questions: How do medical educators assess humanism in medical students, and how does the measurement impact the understanding of humanism in undergraduate medical education (UME)? Method Using the IECARES (integrity, excellence, compassion, altruism, respect, empathy, and service) Gold Foundation framework, a search of English literature databases from 2000 to 2013 on assessment of humanism in medical students revealed more than 900 articles, of which 155 met criteria for analysis. Using descriptive statistics, articles and assessments were analyzed for construct measured, study design, assessment method, instrument type, perspective/source of assessment, student level, validity evidence, and national context. Results Of 202 assessments reported in 155 articles, 162 (80%) used surveys; 164 (81%) used student self-reports. One hundred nine articles (70%) included only one humanism construct. Empathy was the most prevalent construct present in 96 (62%); 49 (51%) of those used a single instrument. One hundred fifteen (74%) used exclusively quantitative data; only 48 (31%) used a longitudinal design. Construct underrepresentation was identified as a threat to validity in half of the assessments. Articles included 34 countries; 87 (56%) were from North America. Conclusions Assessment of humanism in UME incorporates a limited scope of a complex construct, often relying on single quantitative measures from self-reported survey instruments. This highlights the need for multiple methods, perspectives, and longitudinal designs to strengthen the validity of humanism assessments.
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