A preliminary study of empathy, emotional intelligence and examination performance in MBChB students

Med Educ. 2007 Jul;41(7):684-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2923.2007.02795.x.


Context: There is considerable interest in the attributes other than cognitive ability that medical students need in order to be professionally successful, with a particular focus on empathy and emotional intelligence (EI). Selection considerations have also motivated interest in such attributes as predictors of academic success. There are reports of declines in empathy in US medical students, but no comparative information is available for UK students.

Objectives: This study aimed to compare empathy levels in medical students in Years 2, 3 (pre-clinical) and 5 (clinical), to examine gender differences in empathy and EI, and to investigate whether EI and empathy are related to academic success.

Methods: Questionnaires assessing EI and empathy were completed by students. Previous empathy scores for the Year 2 cohort were also available. Empathy trends were examined using anova; trends for the Year 2 group for whom Year 1 scores were available were examined using repeated-measures anova. Associations of EI and empathy with academic success were examined using Pearson correlation.

Results: A significant gender x cohort effect was found, with male empathy scores increasing between Years 1 and 2, whilst female scores declined. Peer ratings in Year 2 problem-based learning (PBL) groups were positively correlated with EI.

Conclusions: Trends in levels of empathy differed by gender. The reasons for this require further investigation, particularly in relation to course content. Associations between academic performance and EI were sparse, and there were none between academic performance and empathy, but the effects of EI (and other characteristics) on PBL group functioning represent a promising area for future study.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Emotions*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • General Surgery / education*
  • Humans
  • Intelligence
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Problem-Based Learning
  • Scotland
  • Sex Factors
  • Students, Medical / psychology*