Physician empathy: definition, components, measurement, and relationship to gender and specialty

Am J Psychiatry. 2002 Sep;159(9):1563-9. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.159.9.1563.


Objective: There is a dearth of empirical research on physician empathy despite its mediating role in patient-physician relationships and clinical outcomes. This study was designed to investigate the components of physician empathy, its measurement properties, and group differences in empathy scores.

Method: A revised version of the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (with 20 Likert-type items) was mailed to 1,007 physicians affiliated with the Jefferson Health System in the greater Philadelphia region; 704 (70%) responded. Construct validity, reliability of the empathy scale, and the differences on mean empathy scores by physicians' gender and specialty were examined.

Results: Three meaningful factors emerged (perspective taking, compassionate care, and standing in the patient's shoes) to provide support for the construct validity of the empathy scale that was also found to be internally consistent with relatively stable scores over time. Women scored higher than men to a degree that was nearly significant. With control for gender, psychiatrists scored a mean empathy rating that was significantly higher than that of physicians specializing in anesthesiology, orthopedic surgery, neurosurgery, radiology, cardiovascular surgery, obstetrics and gynecology, and general surgery. No significant difference was observed on empathy scores among physicians specializing in psychiatry, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency medicine, and family medicine.

Conclusions: Empathy is a multidimensional concept that varies among physicians and can be measured with a psychometrically sound tool. Implications for specialty selection and career counseling are discussed.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Age Factors
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Data Collection / statistics & numerical data
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Medicine / statistics & numerical data*
  • Middle Aged
  • Personality Assessment / statistics & numerical data
  • Physician-Patient Relations*
  • Physicians / psychology*
  • Psychometrics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sex Factors
  • Specialization*