Entering female students had empathy scores that were comparable with those of the normal female population (60 ± 21)16 until after completion of the junior year (see the M4 data point in Figure 1), when they dropped below the norm (P = .003). When women were classified by core and noncore specialties, core women were always comparable with the norm (P > .05). However, noncore women started comparable with the norm (P = .14) but then dropped significantly lower than the norm (P < .002) after completing the freshman year (see the M2 data point in Figure 1).
For both men and women, the pattern of empathy scores (see Figure 1) across the four time points (i.e., the first three years of medical school) is similar. For either gender, total BEES scores drop significantly from initial enrollment to the beginning of the sophomore year. Empathy scores stay level from the beginning of that year to the beginning of the junior year. After completing the first clinical year, BEES scores decline sharply, as evidenced by the senior BEES scores. Thus, men's and women's scores both have a significant cubic trend (i.e., a line with two inflection points and a central plateau; P < .001 for men; P = .023 for women).
For the women, there was no significant interaction of year in medical school with specialty choice (P = .22), but there were significant main effects for type of specialty choice (P = .001), with core women having both a higher score and year of school than did noncore women (P = .001) where, as described above, empathy scores followed a cubic trend. Similar to the women, the men had no significant interaction of time with specialty choice (P = .19). BEES scores for the men differed significantly for career choice (P = .006) and year of medical school (P < .001), as described above.
Women choosing a core specialty had the smallest M1–M4 decline of all groups at 13.0%. Men entering a noncore specialty had the greatest single-year decline (M1–M2; 20.5%) compared with all other groups. Men choosing a core specialty had a 25.8% drop in M1–M4 BEES scores, whereas noncore men had a 38.7% decline. Women entering a noncore specialty had a 29.3% M1–M4 decline in BEES scores, with a single 17.3% drop in empathy after completing the M3 year.
For students choosing a core specialty, there was a gender difference in the degree of decline in M1–M4 scores; the men's decline was essentially twofold greater than the women's decline. Among women, the drop in M1–M4 BEES scores was 2.25-fold greater for those who choose noncore versus those who chose core specialties. For men, the drop in M1–M4 BEES scores was only 1.5-fold greater for the noncore versus core students. In either gender, the greatest declines in M1–M4 BEES scores are associated with those students who selected a noncore specialty.
A secondary analysis was done to determine how similar women's scores were to men's within specialty type. This analysis was prompted by the finding that women choosing noncore specialties had lower BEES scores than did the other women when there was no similar difference for the males. For students choosing a core specialty, women reported significantly higher empathy scores than men did across all four time points (P < .001). The effect size, as measured by a partial eta squared, was 0.33. Women choosing noncore specialties also had higher scores than men choosing noncore specialties, but the difference was not as great (P = .02). In this instance, the effect size was only 0.045.
Our study is unique in at least two aspects. It is the first longitudinal study to follow four cohorts of undergraduate medical students. Second, it is the first study to examine vicarious empathy (i.e., to have a visceral response) instead of cognitive empathy (i.e., to, in imagination, take the role of another) in medical students. We believe that the decrease in BEES scores revealed in this study represents a loss of vicarious empathy. If so, this study reveals a significant decline in the component of empathy that is essential to patient care, because empathy is one of three core values needed to establish an effective physician–patient relationship.17
The results of this study suggest that student empathy is affected by medical education. Our study supports the findings of Coulehan and Williams,18 who described deleterious changes in various humanistic qualities as medical students became “immunized” against these values after their matriculation into medical school. In the freshman year, the similar M1 BEES scores for all four classes indicate that the matriculates studied were drawn from a homogenous population, and that the undergraduate education of the matriculates, predominated by basic science courses, did not decrease vicarious empathy below the established norm. Indeed, the entering male medical students had BEES scores that were significantly higher than the norm. For both the men and the women, the M1 BEES scores were not significantly different between core and noncore groups.
For all the students studied, the significant decrease in vicarious empathy that occurred after completing the freshman year of medical school may have resulted from a high degree of student stress and anxiety caused by the students’ competitiveness and desire to overachieve on examinations. Additional stressful factors may include the media's presentation of doctors as heroes, which helps create a skewed image of the ideal physician for entering freshmen medical students. As the students progressed through their freshman year, they probably realized there is a mismatch between the media representation and reality.19 Additionally, the freshmen likely considered themselves to be in a hostile educational environment that treated them like children.20 All of these stressors induce self-preservation and coping behaviors. In our view, some of these behaviors, expressed as increased cynicism2 and, ostensibly, decreased vicarious empathy, were used by the students to adjust to the stresses and internal conflicts associated with medical education.
The larger drop in the noncore empathy scores of the M2 women versus the core empathy scores for the M2 women suggest that the aforementioned stressors may have a differential effect on some women. We believe women choosing core specialties may better maintain their vicarious empathy, at least partially, because the continuity of patient care (a characteristic of core specialties) lends itself to attracting a more nurturing individual. Conversely, the marked drop in vicarious empathy of women choosing noncore specialties may reflect more of a “survival” or “coping” mechanism. Because noncore specialties (e.g., orthopedics and surgery) are still predominately chosen by men, the noncore women we studied were adjusting in the same way that the less empathetic noncore males did.
The sophomore year, which is an additional year of basic science courses similar to the freshman experience, maintained stable BEES scores. This may be explained by the students’ acclimating to the academic rigors of basic science courses. The junior clinical year, where all students participate in standard rotations, produced another dramatic drop in BEES scores for both the men and the women. This drop substantiates findings from the literature that suggest that the first clinical year of medical school is demanding and challenging.21 The large drop in M3 students’ vicarious empathy occurred while the students were seeing patients they had, presumably, looked forward to helping. It is interesting to note that a recent study showed that a similar drop in empathy occurred after dental students began seeing patients.22 In university tertiary care centers, empathy is hard to direct toward the challenging patients when the treatment emphasis is on technology.23 Immense cultural differences between physicians-in-training and patients may also make it more difficult to achieve adequate empathy. Physicians who are role models should work more closely with medical students to develop an empathic relationship with such patients.24 Our own findings suggest that this could be particularly important for women who enter a noncore specialty, because their drop in vicarious empathy scores more closely emulated the naturally lower empathy scores of the men than the scores of their female colleagues who selected a core specialty.
Studies show that clinicians consider an empathic physician–patient relationship as one of the most important aspects of professionalism5 and that professionalism and physician–patient interactions are best demonstrated by clinician role models at the bedside in hospitals or,25 as suggested by Benbassat and Baumal,24 in primary and chronic care clinics and/or hospice facilities. Other studies reveal a chronic lack of clinical role models,26 and perhaps a lack of positive role models could have contributed to the decline in empathy scores we observed after the completion of the first clinical year of undergraduate medical education.
In addition to complicated treatment regimes and a lack of clinical role models, literature shows that juniors, as student/physicians (i.e., individuals that are learning to assume an authoritative role in providing care while simultaneously being subservient to their mentors), perceive themselves as being abused by their mentor/role models.1,21,27 This student abuse has been termed “traumatic deidealization” by Kay19 and is another factor possibly contributing to the declines in empathy. Other potential factors include fatigue and a lack of patient continuity that is exacerbated by starting a new clinical rotation every four to five weeks.
The “intended” medical curriculum, which is the formally offered and endorsed curriculum, often falls short of student expectations because of the “informal” and the “hidden” curricula.28 The informal curriculum, as defined by Hafferty,28 “is an unscripted, predominantly ad hoc, highly interpersonal form of teaching that takes place among and between faculty and students” (e.g., in the hallway, lounge, or on-call room), whereas the hidden curriculum “is a set of influences that function at the level of organizational structure and culture” (e.g., advertising the amount of National Institutes of Health dollars the institution garners or espousing the need for basic science rather than humanities courses when applying to medical school). These latter two curricula contribute to insidious declines in desirable professional traits, because students easily recognize that campus policies and resource allocations and “what's really important to learn” often conflict with the stated institutional educational mission.1,28 Instead, the mandate that should be implicit within the informal and hidden curricula should be the societal obligation of medical schools to provide and/or train better physician role models who can aid students in overcoming losses in empathy and other professional characteristics.26
The most frequently offered solutions to ameliorate the loss of professionalism at the undergraduate medical level involve teaching students to be empathic or “humanitarian” via courses that emphasize empathic communication skills.9,12,29 Evidence suggests that in most instances the gains are modest and temporary,10,30 and some feel that empathy and compassion are increasingly difficult to teach as an individual matures.20 In contrast to traditional four-year schools, several recent studies have shown that six-year medical schools, or schools with a problem-based learning curriculum, have greater opportunities to integrate humanism and empathy into their curricula.31,32 Despite some encouraging initial reports from several of these nontraditional schools, a large cadre feels that medical students possess a detrimental inertia, fueled by a frank decline in ethics, morals, empathy, and service-oriented attitudes, that cannot be overcome by a concurrent limited exposure to the humanities, especially when presented in an already crowded four-year curriculum.2,9,33,34 Some residency programs, aware of the reduction in humanitarian traits in medical graduates, have developed intensive workshops devoted to teaching and enhancing physician–patient interactions, yet studies show that even with such courses, idealism and empathy decrease and cynicism increases in as little as five months after the start of the intern year.35–37 We maintain that the attempted maintenance of professionalism should be part of the medical school curriculum that is combined with the reinstatement of effective bedside teaching. However, our study findings suggest that the loss of innate, vicarious empathy could make it difficult to effectively teach medical students, interns, and residents to consistently role-play empathic concern.
This study was of a single four-year medical school in the mid-South. Therefore, the findings may not be directly applicable to other medical institutions in the United States. During the period of this longitudinal study, the curriculum at the institution remained fairly stable and can be described as “traditional.” Therefore, differences in empathy scores from year to year, or between graduating classes, were not influenced by large-scale curricular changes. The students voluntarily took the BEES four times. As with any repeated measure, there are concerns that familiarity with the survey may affect the students’ responses. For logistical reasons, this study did not examine BEES scores after the completion of the senior year. It is unknown whether another significant decrease in vicarious empathy would have occurred after completion of the M4 year or even into residency training, but other studies suggest this would have been the case.34,35 A number of students did not respond to our request to use their BEES data. Therefore, the effect that these purged data would have had on our current results cannot be determined. However, we do know that for either gender, the numbers of nonresponders who entered core or noncore specialties on graduation did not differ significantly from those who did permit their data to be used. Thus, nonresponder career choice was not a factor that could have skewed our results.
In conclusion, in our study, the first three years of medical education significantly decreased students’ vicarious empathy. The decline in empathy occurred in students who chose core and noncore specialties, with significant declines occurring during the first basic science year as well as the initial clinical year when students were exposed to patients. The decrease may constitute a coping or survival mechanism where empathic feelings are suppressed. Although a hardening of the heart may aid physicians coping with patients on a daily basis, this runs counter to the patient's need for an empathic caregiver.38 Because of the significant drop in vicarious empathy during medical school, we propose that empathy should be constantly reinforced by the use of role-playing throughout students’ education and be periodically reinforced during their residency training and practice as physicians.
The authors thank the Academic Affairs Office of the College of Medicine for their assistance in distributing the questionnaire, and Tom Hart and Marilyn Walderns, of the Office of Academic Computing, for collating the data. This study was supported by the UAMS Teaching Scholars Program (funded by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education) and Research to Prevent Blindness. Special thanks to John Németh.
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