A study of empathy decline in students from five health disciplines during their first year of training

Paula Nunes1, Stella Williams1, Bidyadhar Sa1 and Keith Stevenson2

1Unit of Public Health and Primary Care, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago

2School of Health, Glasgow Caledonian University, UK

Submitted: 05/11/2010; Accepted: 01/02/2011; Published: 08/02/2011

Int J Med Educ. 2011; 2:12-17; doi: 10.5116/ijme.4d47.ddb0

© 2011 Paula Nunes et al. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use of work provided the original work is properly cited. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Objectives: This cross-sectional study examines the self-reported empathy levels of undergraduate students in five different health sciences disciplines before and after one year of training at the St Augustine Campus, University of the West Indies.

Methods: Students enrolled into the schools of dentistry, pharmacy, medicine, veterinary medicine and nursing self administered the Jefferson Scale of Empathy on entering their first year of training (n=355). Mean empathy scores were then compared between and among groups to scores on retesting at the end (n=366) of their first year using independent t- tests and one way between groups using ANOVA with planned comparisons.

Results: Female students and students older than 27 years were found to be more empathic than male students and those less than 21 years respectively. The highest mean empathy scores on entry to university were noted in nursing and dental students. On repeat testing mean empathy scores declined in all 5 groups, with the declines among medical, nursing and dental students achieving statistical significance.

Conclusions: This study shows that the decline in self reported empathy scores starts during the first year of training. Whilst this decline may be partly due to a 'settling in' phenomenon with a change from idealism to realism, students may also be displaying an adaptive response to new responsibilities and an increasing workload. With the current trend of blurred professional boundaries for healthcare providers, empathy is an important skill to be developed by all disciplines. Health educators now need to consider addressing those factors that may check its further decline.