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Undergraduate medical students' empathy: current perspectives

Authors Quince T, Thiemann P, Benson J, Hyde S

Received 28 October 2015

Accepted for publication 18 January 2016

Published 2 August 2016 Volume 2016:7 Pages 443—455

DOI https://doi.org/10.2147/AMEP.S76800

Checked for plagiarism Yes

Review by Single-blind

Peer reviewers approved by Dr Maria Olenick

Peer reviewer comments 3

Editor who approved publication: Dr Anwarul Azim Majumder


Thelma Quince, Pia Thiemann, John Benson, Sarah Hyde

Primary Care Unit, Department of Public Health and Primary Care, Institute of Public Health, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK

Abstract: Empathy is important to patient care. It enhances patients’ satisfaction, comfort, self-efficacy, and trust which in turn may facilitate better diagnosis, shared decision making, and therapy adherence. Empathetic doctors experience greater job satisfaction and psychological well-being. Understanding the development of empathy of tomorrow's health care professionals is important. However, clinical empathy is poorly defined and difficult to measure, while ways to enhance it remain unclear. This review examines empathy among undergraduate medical students, focusing upon three main questions: How is empathy measured? This section discusses the problems of assessing empathy and outlines the utility of the Jefferson Scale of Empathy – Student Version and Davis's Interpersonal Reactivity Index. Both have been used widely to assess medical students' empathy. Does empathy change during undergraduate medical education? The trajectory of empathy during undergraduate medical education has been and continues to be debated. Potential reasons for contrasting results of studies are outlined. What factors may influence the development of empathy? Although the influence of sex is widely recognized, the impact of culture, psychological well-being, and aspects of undergraduate curricula are less well understood. This review identifies three interrelated issues for future research into undergraduate medical students' empathy. First, the need for greater clarity of definition, recognizing that empathy is multidimensional. Second, the need to develop meaningful ways of measuring empathy which include its component dimensions and which are relevant to patients' experiences. Medical education research has generally relied upon single, self-report instruments, which have utility across large populations but are limited. Finally, there is a need for greater methodological rigor in investigating the possible determinants of clinical empathy in medical education. Greater specificity of context and the incorporation of work from other disciplines may facilitate this.

Keywords: undergraduate medical students' empathy, Jefferson Scale of Empathy – Student Version, Davis's Interpersonal Reactivity Index

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