Objective: There is a growing amount of empirical research on empathy in medicine. This critical review assesses methodological limitations in this body of research that have not received adequate attention.
Methods: Scientific publications presenting empirical research on medical students' or physicians' empathy were systematically searched for.
Results: 206 publications were identified and critically reviewed. Multiple empirical approaches have been used. However, there are some remarkable tendencies given the complexity of the study object: empathy is often not defined. Qualitative approaches are rarely used and the predominant quantitative instruments have a relatively narrow or peripheral scope. For example, the concrete experiences, feelings, and interpretations of the physician and the patient, and empathy in clinical practice, are often neglected. Furthermore, possible influences of medical training and working conditions on empathy have not been adequately explored.
Conclusion: The empirical studies of empathy in medicine tend to separate empathy from main parts of clinical perception, judgment, and communication. Thus, important aspects and influences of empathy have been relatively neglected.
Practice implications: Future studies should include transparent concepts, more than one method and perspective, qualitative approaches, the physician's and the patient's concrete experiences and interpretations, and the context in which empathy is developed and practiced.