Commentary: Identifying Attitudes Towards Empathy: An Essential Feature of Professionalism


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Abstract

Preserving and promoting empathy are ethical imperatives in medical education. The authors of this commentary propose that the “hidden curriculum” and mixed messages learners frequently receive during clinical rotations may erode humanistic traits essential to high-quality care. Three articles in this issue focus on assessing attitude towards empathy in the health care setting using the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy. The authors discuss salient points from these reports, reinforce the concept of empathy as a cognitive attribute, and offer recommendations for teaching and nurturing empathy in health professionals. In the reports, construct validity and reliability of the instrument were confirmed and were comparable with previous results, thus providing medical educators with a sound instrument to measure empathic attitudes in the context of patient care. The authors agree with the distinctions made in the three studies between empathy (described as a cognitive attribute) and sympathy (described as an emotional attribute) and believe that empathy as a cognitive skill can be role modeled, taught, and assessed. Barriers to empathic practice (lack of sufficient role models, failing to teach empathy as a cognitive skill, negative experiences, time pressures, overreliance on technology) can be remedied in medical education through interprofessional education and practice and institutional promotion of relationship-centered care, which maintains the centrality of the patient–clinician relationship while recognizing the importance of relationships with self and others.

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