Cultivating an Empathetic Professional Identity in Osteopathic Medical Students Through Service Learning: A Qualitative Analysis of Reflective Essays

Leanne M. Chrisman-Khawam, MD, MEd, and Joel A. Manzi, OMS III
Notes and Affiliations
Notes and Affiliations

Received: July 10, 2019

Accepted: July 15, 2019

Published: April 1, 2020

J Osteopath Med; 120(4): 263-272

Context: The role of professional identity development has been established as a significant element of the “hidden curriculum” in medical education. While most programs do not contain explicit instruction on that topic, service learning initiatives are a popular trend in medical education that offer medical students early clinical experience and an opportunity to develop professional identity. Through intentional reflective practices, service learning can also promote empathy development, a critical component missing from current models.

Objectives: To determine the role of service learning participation on the development of empathy and professional identity among osteopathic medical students.

Methods: Using a grounded theory method, the authors analyzed reflective essays from students who voluntarily participated in a service learning project that provided medical care to patients who are homeless. Essays were completed within 1 week of volunteer experience.

Results: The authors collected and analyzed 64 reflective essays from 55 students in this study. A review of the 64 texts yielded 5 coding domains and several subdomains. The codes revealed 4 major themes: (1) incoming attitudes, (2) transformative experiences, (3) empathy development, and (4) professional identity formation.

Conclusions: Structured service learning experiences provide students with an opportunity to develop an empathetic professional identity in the preclinical stage of medical education. This form of volunteer service is a transformative experience that challenges students’ incoming perceptions and leads to the development of both empathy and professional identity.

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