To the Editor:
I congratulate Rosenthal et al1 on designing what appears to be a valuable contribution to efforts to preserve empathy in third-year medical students. I was especially intrigued by their finding that in the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School class of 2010, students' knowledge that they had been selected for the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) seemed to significantly raise their scores on the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy Medical Student Version (JSPE-MS). Those students, following the completion of clerkships but prior to notification of GHHS selection, had scored nearly identically on the JSPE-MS as the non-GHHS students, and their empathy levels had, in fact, eroded much more over the course of the year than had those of the non-GHHS students. We are therefore left to conclude that GHHS selection in and of itself increased empathy.
If that's the case, it's rather ironic; one would hope that in order to inculcate empathy in medical students, we wouldn't have to tell them that they're better than their peers in some way. Yet that's essentially what the exclusivity of honor societies does.
It seems to me that having any kind of honor society to recognize and promote humanism runs counter to the ideals enshrined in the concept. When I think of humanism, I think of inclusiveness and an appreciation of each individual's unique strengths and abilities, not a questionnaire-based selection process of peers whom one may or may not actually know or have observed working with patients. What this study tells me is that labeling some medical students as “humanists” and others as not engenders empathy in the chosen few but has unknown effects on the undistinguished many. Yet the few and the many will together graduate as physicians, so we need to leave honor societies behind as we advance empathy for all.
Fifth-year MD/MS student, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; [email protected].
1 Rosenthal S, Howard B, Schlussel YR, et al. Humanism at heart: Preserving empathy in third-year medical students. Acad Med. 2011;86:350–358. http://journals.lww.com/academicmedicine/Abstract/2011/03000/Humanism_at_Heart_Preserving_Empathy_in.24.aspx
. Accessed June 8, 2011.