Effect of Medical Education on Empathy in Osteopathic Medical Students

Adam J. McTighe, PsyD, MBA; Robert A. DiTomasso, PhD; Stephanie Felgoise, PhD; and Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD
Notes and Affiliations
Notes and Affiliations

Received: January 17, 2016

Accepted: February 1, 2016

Published: October 1, 2016

J Osteopath Med; 116(10): 668-674

Context: Empathy is an integral component of the patient-physician relationship and involves a cognitive ability to connect with others in a meaningful fashion. Multiple longitudinal studies have shown that self-reported allopathic medical student empathy declines significantly during year 3. However, to date, only 4 cross-sectional studies have been published on osteopathic medical students’ empathy. Whereas studies of allopathic medical students reported a decline in empathy, similar results were not found in osteopathic studies.

Objectives: To investigate (1) self-reported empathy through years 1 to 3 of osteopathic medical students and (2) whether empathy declines during year 3.

Methods: The study’s design included cross-sectional and test-retest data collection at a private osteopathic medical school in the Northeast region of the United States. Participants included osteopathic medical students and the main outcome measure was the Jefferson Scale of Empathy medical student version.

Results: Respondents (N=717) included 383 women (53%) and 334 men (47%). When empathy levels were examined by demographics, the only significant finding was that women reported significantly higher empathy levels than men (112.3 vs 109.3; P<.001). Cross-sectional results indicate that mean empathy levels were significantly lower for third-year students at the end of the year (108.7) compared with first- and second-year students at the beginning of the year (111.3 and 112.4, respectively; P<.05). Test-retest analyses of year 3 indicated significantly lower empathy levels from the beginning to the end of the academic year (111.2 and 108.7, respectively; P<.05).

Conclusions: Osteopathic medical students’ empathy declined significantly during year 3, which is consistent with the findings from allopathic samples but differs from findings from osteopathic samples. More research is needed to build the data on osteopathic medical student samples and to achieve a better understanding of changes in empathy in osteopathic and allopathic medical students.

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