What is empathy, and how can it be promoted during clinical clerkships?

Acad Med. 2004 Sep;79(9):832-9. doi: 10.1097/00001888-200409000-00004.


The ability of medical students to empathize often declines as they progress through the curriculum. This suggests that there is a need to promote empathy toward patients during the clinical clerkships. In this article, the authors attempt to identify the patient interviewing style that facilitates empathy and some practice habits that interfere with it. The authors maintain that (1) empathy is a multistep process whereby the doctor's awareness of the patient's concerns produces a sequence of emotional engagement, compassion, and an urge to help the patient; and (2) the first step in this process--the detection of the patient's concerns--is a teachable skill. The authors suggest that this step is facilitated by (1) conducting a "patient-centered" interview, thereby creating an atmosphere that encourages patients to share their concerns, (2) enquiring further into these concerns, and (3) recording them in the section traditionally reserved for the patient's "chief complaint." Some practice habits may discourage patients from sharing their concerns, such as (1) writing up the history during patient interviewing, (2) focusing too early on the chief complaint, and (3) performing a complete system review. The authors conclude that sustaining empathy and promoting medical professionalism among medical students may necessitate a change in the prevailing interviewing style in all clinical teaching settings, and a relocation of a larger proportion of clinical clerkships from the hospital setting to primary care clinics and chronic care, home care, and hospice facilities, where students can establish a continuing relationship with patients.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Clerkship*
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / methods
  • Empathy*
  • Humans
  • Medical History Taking*
  • Physician-Patient Relations*