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Open Access Research article

Empathy in senior year and first year medical students: a cross-sectional study

Eunice Magalhães, Ana P Salgueira, Patrício Costa and Manuel J Costa*

Author Affiliations

School of Health Sciences, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal

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BMC Medical Education 2011, 11:52  doi:10.1186/1472-6920-11-52

Published: 29 July 2011

Abstract

Background

The importance of fostering the development of empathy in undergraduate students is continuously emphasized in international recommendations for medical education. Paradoxically, some studies in the North-American context using self-reported measures have found that empathy declines during undergraduate medical training. Empathy is also known to be gender dependent- (highest for female medical students) and related to specialty preference - (higher in patient-oriented than technology-oriented specialties). This factor has not been studied in Portuguese medical schools.

Methods

This is a cross-sectional study of undergraduate medical students on self-rated measures of empathy collected at entrance and at the conclusion of the medical degree, and on the association of empathy measures with gender and specialty preferences in one medical school in Portugal. Empathy was assessed using the Portuguese adaptation of the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy-students version (JSPE-spv) among three cohorts of undergraduate medical students in the first (N = 356) and last (N = 120) year. The construct validity of JSPE-spv was cross-validated with Principal Component Analysis and Confirmatory Factor Analysis. Reliability was assessed using Cronbach' Alpha. Global JSPE-spv score differences were examined by year of medical school, gender and specialty preferences (people-oriented vs technology-oriented specialties).

Results

The empathy scores of students in the final year were higher as compared to first year students (F (1,387) = 19.33, p < .001, ɳ2p = 0.48; π = 0.99). Female students had higher empathy scores than male students (F (1,387) = 8.82, p < .01, ɳ 2p = 0.23; π = 0.84). Significant differences in empathy were not found between the students who prefer people-oriented specialties compared to those who favor the technology-oriented specialties (F (1,387) = 2.44, p = .12, ɳ 2p = 0.06; π = 0.06).

Conclusions

This cross-sectional study in one medical school in Portugal showed that the empathy measures of senior year students were higher than the scores of freshmen. A longitudinal cohort study is needed to test variations in students' empathy measures throughout medical school.