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# Changes in empathy throughout medical school and residency

## Problem

Empathy is a personality trait that is characterized by the ability to intellectually understand what another person is experiencing and show consideration for that person’s feelings and behavior. Empathy is especially relevant in healthcare, and can be beneficial for both patients and physicians. Some research suggests that higher levels of physician empathy are helpful in increasing patient health and satisfaction, and can also result in increased well-being for doctors themselves. Because empathy is so important in clinical settings, medical schools have turned their attention to their students’ empathy, so that they might learn to be more effective clinicians early on in their careers. However, before implementing curricular changes, schools decided to first learn more about empathy and whether or not it changes throughout the medical education process.
The present study examined empathy in a cohort of medical students as they progressed through medical school and residency. 400 medical students from several schools across the country were recruited to complete a series of questionnaires that were distributed once a year for 9 years. At baseline, participants ranged in age from 22 to 28 (mean = 24, point, 4), with equal numbers of men and women in the sample. At each time point, participants were given the Empathy Questionnaire, which included 20 questions rated on a 7-point likert scale (total score range of 20 - 140). Higher scores indicated higher empathy. At the final timepoint, participants gave statements about their experience with empathy throughout their education. Table 1 outlines mean empathy scores over time, while Figure 1) outlines a statement from a resident after completing her residency program.
Table 1
YearMean
Baseline (orientation day)114, point, 4
End of med school year 1114, point, 5
End of med school year 2115, point, 8
End of med school year 3102, point, 3
End of med school year 4108, point, 5
End of residency year 1109, point, 6
End of residency year 2110, point, 8
End of residency year 3113, point, 2
End of residency year 4114, point, 6
Figure 1
“I’ve always been a very empathetic person, and I went to medical school because I wanted to help people. The first two years were tough and I couldn’t wait to see patients. But when I started working with patients in the hospital, I just got more stressed and frustrated each day. I’m not even sure when it changed, but I noticed by the time that I graduated, I had stopped caring about patients. At the time I thought to myself, what kind of person have I become? I realized that my stress levels and frustration with the hospital had made me less empathetic, but I knew that empathy was something I really appreciated about myself and valued. I thought, what kind of doctor do I ultimately want to be? So I made changes each day - I really worked hard to be there for my patients and practice empathy, to be conscious and rational about my decision making, so that I could achieve my full potential as a resident and as a physician.”
What term best describes the design of the study?