Purpose: Research is said to show that empathy declines during medical school and residency training. These studies and their results were examined to determine the extent of the decline and the plausibility of any alternative explanations.
Method: Eleven studies published from 2000 to 2008 which reported empathy at various stages of physician training were reexamined. Their results were transformed back to the original units of the rating scales to make results more interpretable by reporting them in the metric of the original anchors. Next, the relationship between empathy ratings and response rates were examined to see whether response bias was a plausible threat to the validity of the empathy decline conclusion.
Results: The changes in mean empathy ranged across the 11 studies from a 0.1-point increase in empathy to a 0.5-point decrease, with an average of a 0.2-point decline for the 11 studies (ratings were on 5-point, 7-point, and 9-point scales). Mean ratings were similar in medical school and residency. Response rates were low and—where reported—declined on average about 26 percentage points.
Conclusions: Reexamination revealed that the evidence does not warrant the strong, disturbing conclusion that empathy declines during medical education. Results show a very weak decline in mean ratings, and even the weak decline is questionable because of the low and varying response rates. Moreover, the empathy instruments are self-reports, and it isn't clear what they measure—or whether what they measure is indicative of patients' perceptions and the effectiveness of patient care.