There is conceptual ambiguity in defining empathy, which is further amplified when trying to define clinical empathy. The construct of empathy has been an ongoing debate: sometimes being interpreted as a cognitive attribute, other times as an emotional state of mind. Our preferred definition is moral, emotive, cognitive and behavioural dimensions working in harmony to benefit the patient. Understanding the feelings, attitudes and experiences of a patient is the first step towards a potent and effective interview and, thereby, therapeutic agreement. Thus, clinical empathy may be the most powerful tool for a successful collaboration between the patient and the doctor. This chapter discusses the history of clinical empathy starting with Sir William Osler’s definition of ‘neutral empathy’ where he argues that physicians need to neutralise their emotions so that they can ‘see into’ and, thereby, be able to ‘study’ the patient’s ‘inner life’, to Halpern’s insightful observations about the power of empathy, which ‘lies in its ability to help us cross the divide between clinicians and patients created by their very different circumstances’. This is followed by a summary of the literature deliberating the increasing concern among medical educators and medical professionals regarding the decline in medical students’ empathy during medical school, which brings us to our research question: are there significant changes in empathy levels over time in undergraduate medical education? This body of work reports on a cross-sectional study of all medical students enrolled at an Australian medical school, known for its cultural, social and religious diversity, in 2011. The research instrument used consisted of a survey encompassing questions on demographics in addition to the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy, Student version (JSPE-S). Empathy levels were compared while controlling for effects of age, gender, marital status, religious belief, ethnicity/cultural background, year of medical training, previous education and level of completion of programmes promoting altruism in an attempt to identify their effect on the levels of empathy. A total of 404 students participated in the study. The scores of the JSPE-S ranged from 34 to 135 with a mean score of 109.07 ± 14.937. This is considered moderate to high when compared to reported scores in previous studies on medical students. Female medical students had significantly higher empathy scores compared to their male counterparts in total and in individual years. Contrary to the literature, there were no significant differences in empathy scores in relation to the stage of medical training. Findings suggest that there is a gender difference in the levels of empathy, favouring female medical students, and that empathy levels may be preserved in medical school despite prior evidence that a decline is pervasive.
Part of the book: Empathy