Purpose: To determine whether vicarious empathy (i.e., to have a visceral empathic response, versus role-playing empathy) decreases, and whether students choosing specialties with greater patient contact maintain vicarious empathy better than do students choosing specialties with less patient contact.
Method: The Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale was administered at the beginning of each academic year at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences for four classes, 2001-2004. Students also reported their gender and specialty choice. Specialty choice was classified as core (internal medicine, family medicine, obstetrics-gynecology, pediatrics, and psychiatry) or noncore (all other specialties).
Results: Vicarious empathy significantly decreased during medical education (P < .001), especially after the first and third years. Students choosing core careers had higher empathy than did those choosing noncore careers. Men choosing core careers initially had empathy exceeding population norms, but their empathy fell to be comparable with that of norms by the end of their third year. The empathy of men choosing noncore careers was comparable with that of norms. Women choosing core careers had empathy scores comparable with those of norms, but the scores of women choosing noncore careers fell below those of the norms by their second year.
Conclusions: The findings suggest that undergraduate medical education may be a major determinant differentially affecting the vicarious empathy of students on the basis of gender and/or specialty choice. The greatest impact occurred in men who chose noncore specialties. The significant decrease in vicarious empathy is of concern, because empathy is crucial for a successful physician-patient relationship.