Humanism at heart: preserving empathy in third-year medical students

Acad Med. 2011 Mar;86(3):350-8. doi: 10.1097/ACM.0b013e318209897f.


Purpose: Research suggests that medical student empathy erodes during undergraduate medical education. The authors evaluated the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy Medical Student Version (JSPE-MS) scores of two consecutive medical school classes to assess the impact of an educational intervention on the preservation of empathy.

Method: The authors conducted a before-and-after study of 209 Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) students enrolled in the classes of 2009 and 2010. Students' clerkships included a mandatory, longitudinal "Humanism and Professionalism" (H&P) component, which included blogging about clerkship experiences, debriefing after significant events, and discussing journal articles, fiction, and film. Students completed the JSPE-MS during their first and last clerkships.

Results: The results showed that (1) contrary to previous studies' findings, third-year students did not show significant decline in empathy as measured by the JSPE-MS (these students, from two consecutive RWJMS classes, experienced the H&P intervention), (2) students selected for the Gold Humanism Honor Society (GHHS) were significantly different from their peers in empathy scores as measured by JSPE-MS, and (3) knowledge of selection for the GHHS seems to positively influence students' JSPE-MS scores.

Conclusions: Maintaining empathy during the third year of medical school is possible through educational intervention. A curriculum that includes safe, protected time for third-year students to discuss their reactions to patient care situations during clerkships may have contributed to the preservation of empathy. Programs designed to validate humanism in medicine (such as the GHHS) may reverse the decline in empathy as measured by the JSPE-MS.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Clinical Clerkship / organization & administration*
  • Curriculum*
  • Empathy*
  • Ethics, Medical / education*
  • Female
  • Humanism*
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Program Evaluation
  • Students, Medical / psychology*
  • Young Adult