Background: Physician empathy is both theoretically and empirically critical to patient health, but research indicates that empathy declines throughout medical school and is lower than ideal among physicians. In this paper, we synthesize the published literature regarding interventions that were quantitatively evaluated to detect changes in empathy among medical students, residents, fellows and physicians.
Methods: We systematically searched PubMed, EMBASE, Web of Science and PsychINFO in June of 2014 to identify articles that quantitatively assessed changes in empathy due to interventions among medical students, residents, fellows and physicians.
Results: Of the 1,415 articles identified, 64 met inclusion criteria. We qualitatively synthesized the findings of qualified studies by extracting data for ten study metrics: 1) source population, 2) sample size, 3) control group, 4) random assignment, 5) intervention type, 6) intervention duration, 7) assessment strategy, 8) type of outcome measure, 9) outcome assessment time frame, and 10) whether a statistically significant increase in empathy was reported. Overall, the 64 included studies were characterized by relatively poor research designs, insufficient reporting of intervention procedures, low incidence of patient-report empathy assessment measures, and inadequate evaluations of long-term efficacy. 8 of 10 studies with highly rigorous designs, however, found that targeted interventions did increase empathy.
Conclusions: Physician empathy appears to be an important aspect of patient and physician well-being. Although the current empathy intervention literature is limited by a variety of methodological weaknesses, a sample of high-quality study designs provides initial support for the notion that physician empathy can be enhanced through interventions. Future research should strive to increase the sample of high-quality designs through more randomized, controlled studies with valid measures, explicit reporting of intervention strategies and procedures, and long-term efficacy assessments.