Medical Students Diagnosed with Low Empathy

Studies show medical students' empathy scores drop the longer they're in school—but education and training can help.

Doctor empathy

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There are few things more traumatic than finding out that you or a loved one has a serious medical issue. The last thing you’d want at that moment is a doctor who isn’t sensitive to patient pain and suffering—but new research suggests that may be just what you’ll get.

Dr. Daniel Chen, an assistant professor of medicine and assistant dean of student affairs at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), has done several studies in the past few years on the topic of declining medical student empathy. The studies tracked students’ empathy scores as they moved through the curriculum, and found that the scores dropped as students progressed. Perhaps most troubling is that the largest drop occurred around the third year of medical school—the time when students begin to actually see patients. A Boston Globe article about the issue quotes Chen:

“Empathy is the cornerstone of the doctor-patient relationship,’’ Chen said, so “it’s becoming more and more important to research.’’ He defines empathy as letting patients know the doctor understands their thoughts and feelings — important because studies show that patients of caring doctors may be healthier.

The reasons for empathy dropping are valid: a stressful, high-pressure work environment, combined with the need to get patients in and out to cut down on hospital costs, can take a toll on medical students, making it hard to be empathetic. Plus, as Chen says in the Globe report, “It is time-consuming and physically draining to be involved in a very emotional situation.”

Doctors and researchers are not ignoring the problem, though. BUSM is using tactics like role-playing, discussion, and video analysis to try to preserve empathy scores even throughout the taxing medical school process, the Globe reports. Other Boston healthcare centers are taking on the problem, too. Massachusetts General Hospital runs programs to improve physician empathy, and a study from the hospital published last year showed that doctors can be taught empathy as a skill, as opposed to it being an inherent personality trait. Boston is also home to the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare, a national non-profit working to improve relations between caregivers and patients. The Globe report quotes Beth Lown, the Schwartz Center’s medical director, about the importance of empathy education:

“Students come in with a lot of idealism,’’ Lown said. “They want to be of help and service. And then something starts to happen when they are exposed to clinical care. We need better curriculum and education on how to manage those feelings.’’

So while the results of studies like Chen’s may be off-putting at first, there is hope. And it’s good to know that Boston is at the forefront of identifying and rectifying the problem.