A Systematic Review of Empathy Development in Medical Education

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Medical Education







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Context Empathy in doctor–patient relationships is a familiar topic for medical scholars and a crucial goal for medical educators. Nonetheless, there are persistent disagreements in the research literature concerning how best to evaluate empathy among physicians, and whether empathy declines or increases across medical education. Some researchers have argued that the instruments used to study ‘empathy’ may not measure anything meaningful to clinical practice or patient satisfaction. Methods We performed a systematic review to learn how empathy is conceptualised in medical education research. We examined how researchers define the central construct of empathy and what they choose to measure, and investigated how well definitions and operationalisations match. Results Among the 109 studies that met our search criteria, 20% failed to define the central construct of empathy at all and only 13% used an operationalisation that was well matched to the definition provided. The majority of studies were characterised by internal inconsistencies and vagueness in both the conceptualisation and operationalisation of empathy, constraining the validity and usefulness of the research. The methods most commonly used to measure empathy relied heavily on self-report and cognition divorced from action, and may therefore have limited power to predict the presence or absence of empathy in clinical settings. Finally, the large majority of studies treated empathy itself as a ‘black box’, using global construct measurements that are unable to shed light on the underlying processes that produce an empathic response. Conclusions We suggest that future research should follow the lead of basic scientific research that conceptualises empathy as relational – an engagement between a subject and an object – rather than as a personal quality that may be modified wholesale through appropriate training.

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