HealthDay News — Certain aspects of empathy improve during medical student training, according to a study published online in Medical Education.

Karen E. Smith, from the University of Chicago, and colleagues conducted a longitudinal study in which medical students completed a series of self-report and behavioral measures twice per year during the first 3 years of their study. Measures included the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), designed to assess empathy in the clinical context, and the Questionnaire of Cognitive and Affective Empathy (QCAE), designed to assess overall empathy and its main components.

The researchers found that over training there was a decrease in students’ empathy, assessed by the JSPE. Aspects of students’ empathy, specifically overall cognitive empathy and its subcomponent perspective taking, and the emotion contagion subcomponent of affective empathy improved on the QCAE, while the remaining subcomponents were stable. Students also exhibited comparable growth in the understanding of others’ emotions during medical school, as well as increased sensitivity to others’ pain.

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“This study points to the importance of assessing the distinct components of empathy using multiple forms of measurement in order to better understand the mechanisms involved in empathy changes in medical practice,” the authors write.

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Smith KE, Norman GJ, Decety J. The complexity of empathy during medical school training: evidence for positive changes [published online September 7, 2017]. Med Educ. doi:10.1111/medu.13398