Maintaining Empathy Throughout Medical School

A study performed at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences questions whether or not medical students maintain their empathy towards patients as their studies progress.

The study raises some interesting points about the difficult road students must follow throughout medical school. Of special note is that empathy seems to decline significantly after the 1st and 3rd years.  The following results are particularly intriguing:

Vicarious empathy significantly decreased during medical education (P < .001), especially after the first and third years. Students choosing core careers had higher empathy than did those choosing noncore careers. Men choosing core careers initially had empathy exceeding population norms, but their empathy fell to be comparable with that of norms by the end of their third year. The empathy of men choosing noncore careers was comparable with that of norms. Women choosing core careers had empathy scores comparable with those of norms, but the scores of women choosing noncore careers fell below those of the norms by their second year.

Certainly, this study is not generalizable to all med students, as it includes only students from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for four classes (2001-2004). It does, however, present some interesting topics for discussion about medical education and its connection to prevailing issues in the healthcare industry.

Is our medical education system too impersonal? Is it so grueling and competitive that it forces students to “harden up?” Does this problem lead to poor bedside manner in practice? Does our level of empathy predict which specialty we end up choosing?

Hopefully these are problems that will be addressed by future interventions in medical education. Until then, we, as doctors in training, must do our part to maintain empathy and do our best to remember why we chose this profession to begin with.

What’s your opinion?  Do you think medical training affect students’ ability to empathize with patients?

Read the article:


12 thoughts on “Maintaining Empathy Throughout Medical School”

  1. This entry brings up a very salient point about medical education. My suspicion is that if any of your readers disagrees with it then it could be because the problem of loss of empathy is actually so entrenched and institutionalized so as to be difficult to be perceived clearly by the students and doctors themselves.
    It has been my experience as a student and the subsequent 8 years of work that this article is pretty accurate. We tend to become smug, cocky, and detached after the initial ‘shock and awe’ period in the first year of school. The off-the-cuff remarks we throw around about our patients and their problems while chilling out with other students in a lounge or canteen can easily be perceived as calloused or insensitive.
    Yes, it is a complex phenomenon which partly potects the sanity of the student but at what cost. So many of our healthcare problems stem from the simple fact that too many doctors just don’t care quite enough. The solution is a simple, albeit, perhaps not an easy one: Always… ALWAYS treat EVERY single patient you EVER come across -even in the elevator- as a beloved relative.

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