Study: Medical Students Lose Empathy for Patients as They Progress Through Medical School

By Rob Dillard - Last Updated: February 6, 2020

Medical students appear to lose empathy as they progress through medical school, and this decline in empathy is higher among MD (doctor of medicine) students than DO (osteopathic) students, according to a recent study published in the journal Academic Medicine.

Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, said in a press release that empathy in the context of patient care is “a cognitive attribute that involves an ability to understand the patient’s pain, suffering, and perspective combined with a capability to communicate this understanding and an intention to help.”

In this study, researchers recruited 10,751 medical students (3,616 first-year, 2,764 second-year, 2,413 third-year, and 1,958 fourth-year students) enrolled in 41 campuses of DO-granting medical schools in the US while comparing preexisting data from students of MD-granting medical schools. All participants were asked to complete a web-based survey at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year that included the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE) and the Infrequency Scale of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire for assessing “good impression” response bias. Subsequently, the researchers used analysis of covariance while controlling for the effect of “good impression” response bias to assess the students’ empathy scores.

A Need for Sustained Empathy

According to the results of the study, there was a decline in empathy scores between medical students in the pre-clinical years (first-and-second year students) and medical students in the clinical years (third-and-fourth year students). Furthermore, the researchers observed that the pattern of empathy decline was similar among DO students, but the magnitude was less pronounced.

“As students progress through medical school, you expect empathic engagement in patient care to improve. Apparently, that’s not the case,” said Dr. Hojat, a Research Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior and Director of the Jefferson Longitudinal Study at the Center.

“It’s an important responsibility of medical school to train knowledgeable, technically proficient doctors. They should train physicians who can establish better relationships with the patients, not only doctors who can pass an exam to get license and practice medicine,” Dr. Hojat added. “You can teach and enhance empathy, but the problem we noticed is that it’s not enough, that you have to do additional things to sustain it.”

Update: DocWire News conducted a subsequent interview with the lead researcher of this study, Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, to further discuss its findings.



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