Purpose: To examine the contribution of students' gender and ethnicity to assessments by simulated patients (SPs) of medical students' empathy, and to compare the results with students' self-assessments of their own empathy.
Method: In 2008, the authors used three different tools to assess the empathy of 248 third-year medical students. Students completed the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), and SPs completed the Jefferson Scale of Patient Perceptions of Physician Empathy (JSPPPE) and a global rating of empathy (GRE) in 10 objective structured clinical examination (OSCE) encounters.
Results: Of the 248 students who completed an end-of-third-year OSCE, 176 (71%) also completed the JSPE. Results showed that women scored higher than men on all three measures of empathy. The authors detected no significant difference between white and Asian American students on their self-report JSPE scores. However, the SPs' assessments on the JSPPPE and on the GRE were significantly lower, indicating less empathy, for Asian American students.
Conclusions: A tool for SPs to assess students' empathy during an OSCE could be helpful for unmasking some deficits in empathy in students during the third year of medical school. Because the authors found no significant differences on self-reported empathy, the differences they observed in the SPs' assessments of white and Asian American students were unexpected and need further exploration. These findings call for investigation into the reasons for such differences so that OSCEs and other examinations comply with the guidelines for fairness in educational and psychological testing as recommended by professional testing organizations.