Medical students begin losing empathy after their first year in school, and the decline accelerates after clinical rotations, according to a study in Academic Medicine.
To reach these conclusions, Bruce Newton and colleagues followed 419 medical students from four consecutive classes from freshman through senior year at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
Researchers assessed vicarious empathy, which is a person’s emotional response to the perceived emotional experiences of others. Using a 9-point scale, they asked students to agree or disagree with statements like, “I cannot feel much sorrow for those who are responsible for their own misery.”
The scientists found that student empathy scores dropped after the first year of medical school and then again after the third year. Female students turned in higher empathy scores than their male counterparts, and students entering primary care showed more empathy than those entering pathology, radiology and surgery.
They attributed the early decline in empathy to stress and anxiety associated with students’ competitiveness and worry about exam scores. The late decline was assumed to be caused by the intensity of hospital practice. Teaching on the wards was likely to have been rushed, and students may not have received as much mentoring or bedside teaching as they wanted.
“We know that really good communication skills (helps) patients…to comply with the instructions of the physician,” said Newton. “A bond of trust is established, and if something unfortunately goes wrong, if you have this bond, you are less likely to be sued.”
“We start with students who are very caring but have no diagnostic skills and end up with physicians with great diagnostics skill but who don’t care,” summed up Richard Frankel a professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine, for AMedNews.