Teaching Empathy to Medical Students: An Updated, Systematic Review

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Abstract

Purpose

Some research shows that empathy declines during medical school. The authors conducted an updated, systematic review of the literature on empathy-enhancing educational interventions in undergraduate medical education.

Method

The authors searched PubMed, EMBASE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Scopus, and Web of Science (January 1, 2004 through March 19, 2012) using key words related to undergraduate medical education and empathy. They independently selected and reviewed all English-language articles that described an educational intervention designed to promote empathy in medical students, assessing the quality of the quantitative studies using the Medical Education Research Study Quality Instrument (MERSQI).

Results

The authors identified and reviewed the full texts of 18 articles (15 quantitative and 3 qualitative studies). Included interventions used one or more of the following—patient narrative and creative arts (n = 7), writing (n = 3), drama (n=1), communication skills training (n = 4), problem-based learning (n = 1), interprofessional skills training (n = 1), patient interviews (n = 4), experiential learning (n = 2), and empathy-focused training (n = 1). Fifteen articles reported significant increases in empathy. Mean effect size was 0.23. Mean MERSQI scorewas 10.13 (range 6.5–14).

Conclusions

These findings suggest that educational interventions can be effective in maintaining and enhancing empathy in undergraduate medical students. In addition, they highlight the need for multicenter, randomized controlled trials, reporting long-term data to evaluate the longevity of intervention effects. Defining empathy remains problematic, and the authors call for conceptual clarity to aid future research.

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