Measurement of Empathy Changes During a Physical Therapist's Education and Beyond

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Background and Purpose.

Empathy is a vital communication skill capable of enhancing therapeutic relationships. Empathy is valued by patients and when communicated effectively, is shown to enhance the ability to improve patient compliance and patient outcomes. Therefore, it is an important skill to foster in physical therapy students. However, studies in other disciplines have shown empathy to decrease over the course of health care professional training. The aims of this study were to: (1) measure empathy in physical therapist (PT) students and new graduates, (2) compare empathy between sexes, and (3) compare empathy between year of study and new graduates via a longitudinal approach.


PT students (n = 169) who completed surveys in their first (n = 101 surveys), second (n = 101 surveys), and third (n = 101 surveys) year of study, and at 6 months post-graduation (n = 29 surveys).


Empathy was measured twice during the academic year in each year of study cohort and once in new graduates using the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE) Health Care Provider Student version. The JSE is an established and valid tool for measuring empathy and is comprised of 20 statements answered on a 7-point Likert scale. The possible range of scoring is between 20–140 points. Empathy scores were collected over a 3 and a half year period to capture data from multiple classes. The data was analyzed between years of study (first versus second versus third versus new graduate), at 2 assessment points for each year (baseline and final), and by sex.


There was no statistical interaction between year of study and sex on empathy scores in the initial 2-way analysis of variance (ANOVA) (P = .17), although sex had a significant main effect (P < .001) with scores being 6.3 points (5.6%) higher in females (118.1 ± 10.0) than males (111.8 ± 11.3). Empathy scores at assessment time points differed (P < .02). Final empathy scores were 2.9% greater than baseline scores in the first year of study (P < .02). Final scores for the third year of study were 2.8% lower when compared to final scores from the first year of study (P = .03). Graduates had 5.1% higher empathy scores than students at the end of their third year of study (P < .01).

Discussion and Conclusion.

The results of this study show a difference in empathy across the 3 years of the education program, with the first-year students being significantly more empathetic at the end of the academic year compared to the beginning and third-year students significantly less empathetic than their first-year and new graduate counterparts. Female PT students were significantly more empathetic than male PT students, a finding consistent with the effect of sex observed in other health care disciplines.

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