Influences on students' empathy in medical education: an exploratory interview study with medical students in their third and last year

BMC Med Educ. 2018 Oct 5;18(1):231. doi: 10.1186/s12909-018-1335-7.


Background: Empathy is beneficial for patients and physicians. It facilitates treatment and improves physical and psychosocial outcomes. The therapeutic relevance of empathy emphasizes the need to help medical students develop their empathic abilities. Our study aimed to identify factors which promote or hinder the development and expression of empathy in medical students during the course of their studies.

Methods: We interviewed 24 medical students (six male and six female students in their 6th semester as well as six male and six female students in their final clinical year) using semi-structured interviews. The interviews were recorded, transcribed verbatim and analyzed using Braun & Clarke's thematic analysis.

Results: We identified four main themes influencing the development and expression of empathy. 1) Course of studies: hands-on-experience, role models, science and theory, and emphasis on the importance of empathy; 2) students: insecurities and lack of routine, increasing professionalism, previous work experiences, professional distance, mood, maturity, and personal level of empathy; 3) patients: "easy" and "difficult" patients including their state of health; and 4) surrounding conditions: time pressure/stress, work environment, and job dissatisfaction.

Conclusions: The development and use of empathy could be promoted by increasing: hands-on-experiences, possibilities to experience the patient's point of view and offering patient contact early in the curriculum. Students need support in reflecting on their actions, behavior and experiences with patients. Instructors need time and opportunities to reflect on their own communication with and treatment of patients, on their teaching behavior, and on their function as role models for treating patients empathically and preventing stress. Practical experiences should be made less stressful for students. The current changes implemented in some medical school curriculums (e.g., in Germany) seem to go in the right direction by integrating patient contact early on in the curriculum and focusing more on teaching adequate communication and interaction behaviors.

Keywords: Empathy; Qualitative research; Undergraduate students.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / organization & administration*
  • Empathy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Outcome and Process Assessment, Health Care
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Schools, Medical / organization & administration
  • Students, Medical / statistics & numerical data*