Study challenges perception that empathy erodes during medical school

Study challenges perception that empathy erodes during medical school

The relationship between a doctor and patient relies heavily on the physician’s capacity to empathize with or be sensitive to a patient’s emotional state. Empathy has been associated with patients’ increased adherence to treatment, fewer malpractice complaints, improved patient satisfaction and favorable health outcomes.

Some studies have documented troubling declines in  during medical training—the steepest of which are believed to occur between the second and third years of , when students begin clinical training and empathetic communication is critical. But a new study by social neuroscientists at the University of Chicago, published Sept. 7 in Medical Education, challenges the common perception that empathy declines during medical training.

The authors point to the interaction of two facets of empathy: cognitive and affective. “Cognitive empathy is the ability to recognize and understand another person’s experience, to communicate and confirm that understanding, and to act in an appropriate and helpful manner without necessarily sharing his or her emotions,” said Jean Decety, the Irving B. Harris Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology and Psychiatry, and lead author of the new study. “Affective, or emotional, empathy is being attuned to someone else’s emotions, feeling what he or she feels.”

Previous studies that reported an erosion of empathy during medical training relied on one self-reported assessment of cognitive empathy. Often emphasized as most important in a clinical setting, it enables physicians to understand how their patients feel without having an emotional attunement. Affective empathy has long been thought to impede a physician’s effectiveness in diagnosing and treating patients. Decety and UChicago colleagues Greg Norman, assistant professor in psychology, and graduate  Karen Smith contend that both components are important in patient-physician interactions, as doctors must be able to both accurately perceive and respond to their patients’ emotional states.

In this study, a variety of subjective and objective measures helped provide a more complete understanding of the mechanisms that contribute to changes in empathetic capacity over the course of medical school. It also shed light on current discrepancies and inconsistencies within medical empathy literature.

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Source: Medical Xpress

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