Med Students: Feeling Your Pain?

Mar 25, 2013

The medical students we've been following this year, Sarah Rapoport and Peter Kaminski, are about to wrap up their second year of medical school and, with it, their time in the classroom. They'll spend their third and fourth years in the hospital, learning on the job. And that's when medical students are most at risk of losing the ability to empathize with patients, according to some recent studies reported in this Boston Globe article:

"At Boston University School of Medicine...Dr. Daniel Chen has found in studies that students’ empathy scores fell between the time they started medical school and the time they graduated. The most significant drop occurred in the third year, just as students started caring for their first patients. Other researchers have uncovered similar patterns during residency training, although some physicians question whether the surveys capture the complexity of the issue."

(Of course, I believe Sarah and Peter will do great - knowing them!)

"...student empathy scores fell between the time they started medical school and the time they graduated."

But why the loss of empathy over time? And does it matter? As for the first question, the answer may simply be stress. For the first time, third year medical students have real responsibilities in the hospital. They're also at the bottom of the totem pole, and may not be spared criticism from residents and attending physicians alike. Plus, students have gone through a process that's taught them to get the information they need from a patient in a timely manner, so they can present it to their higher-ups. When they're so focused on that responsibility, it might be tough to remember maintain that human touch.

As for why it matters, the Globe article points to some interesting research about the effect of empathy on patient health. If those studies are sound, then a doctor's ability to empathize with you could keep you healthier. Plus, it just feels better when someone empathizes with a problem you're having, doesn't it? Unfortunately, many of us have probably seen a doctor at some point who seemed cold or uncaring. And that's no prescription for getting better.