To examine differences in students’ empathy in different years of medical school in a nationwide study of students of U.S. DO-granting medical schools.
Participants in this cross-sectional study included 10,751 students enrolled in 41 of 48 campuses of DO-granting medical schools in the United States (3,616 first-year; 2,764 second-year; 2,413 third-year; and 1,958 fourth-year students). They completed a web-based survey at the end of the 2017–2018 academic year that included the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE) and the Infrequency Scale of the Zuckerman-Kuhlman Personality Questionnaire for measuring “good impression” response bias. Comparisons were made on empathy scores among students in different years of medical school using analysis of covariance, controlling for the effect of “good impression” response bias. Also, comparisons were made with preexisting data from students of U.S. MD-granting medical schools.
A statistically significant decline in empathy scores was observed when comparing students in the preclinical (years 1 and 2) and the clinical (years 3 and 4) phases of medical school (P
< .001); however, the magnitude of the decline was negligible (effect size = 0.13). Comparison of findings with MD students showed that while the pattern of empathy decline was similar, the magnitude of the decline was less pronounced in DO students.
Differences in DO-granting and MD-granting medical education systems provide plausible explanations for disparity in the magnitude of empathy decline in DO compared to MD students. More research is needed to examine changes in empathy in longitudinal study and explore reasons for changes to avert erosion of empathy in medical school.