Cognitive empathy of osteopathic students: a longitudinal study with data comparisons to the Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy (POMEE)

Bruce W. Newton, PhD; and Zachary T. Vaskalis, PhD
Notes and Affiliations
Notes and Affiliations

Received: January 17, 2023

Accepted: July 27, 2023

Published: September 13, 2023

  • Bruce W. Newton, PhD, 

    Department of Anatomy, Campbell University, Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine in North Carolina, Buies Creek, NC, USA

  • Zachary T. Vaskalis, PhD, 

    Department of Medical Education, Campbell University, Jerry M. Wallace School of Osteopathic Medicine, Buies Creek, NC, USA

J Osteopath Med; 124(1): 13-20

Context: Establishing an empathic bond of trust with patients is a characteristic that physicians need, because patients feel that physicians are more caring if they sense that they are empathetic. Former cross-sectional studies have shown an erosion of cognitive empathy as medical students progress through their education.

Objectives: This study aims to measure the changes in student cognitive empathy as they progress through their undergraduate osteopathic medical education. Cognitive empathy scores are compared to the nationwide norms established by the Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy (POMEE) study by Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, and colleagues.

Methods: During orientation to medical school, and at the beginning of each subsequent academic year, and just before graduation, the graduating classes of 2017–2019 participated in this longitudinal study by filling out the Jefferson Scale of Empathy-Student Version (JSE-S). A total of 345/459 Osteopathic Medical Student (OMS) I-IV students (75.2 % of the graduates) filled out the forms for all five time points. Desired specialty choice and sex were also collected. Specialty choice was divided into Core and Non-Core groups. Core specialties are “people-oriented” and have a large amount of patient contact and continuity of care, while Non-Core specialties are “technical- or procedure-oriented” and have little or no patient contact and/or continuity of care.

Results: Men selecting Non-Core specialties had significant drops in JSE-S scores (p=0.001); whereas men who selected the Core specialties did not have a significant decrease. For women, there was no significant drop in JSE-S scores for those selecting either Core or Non-Core specialties. When compared to POMEE norm data, none of the Campbell University School of Medicine students had JSE-S scores that were above the 50th percentile.

Conclusions: Students selecting Core specialties do a better job of maintaining their cognitive empathy, which aids their ability to establish an empathic bond of trust with patients, when compared to students who desire Non-Core specialties. JSE-S scores not above the POMEE 50th percentile is concerning and indicate either a curricular change to better enhance empathic communication skills and/or better applicant selection.

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