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J Gen Intern Med. Feb 2007; 22(2): 177–183.
Published online Jan 9, 2007. doi:  10.1007/s11606-006-0039-6
PMCID: PMC1824738

How Do Distress and Well-being Relate to Medical Student Empathy? A Multicenter Study

Abstract

Objective

To determine whether lower levels of empathy among a sample of medical students in the United States are associated with personal and professional distress and to explore whether a high degree of personal well-being is associated with higher levels of empathy.

Design

Multi-institutional, cross-sectional survey.

Setting

All medical schools in Minnesota (a private medical school, a traditional public university, and a public university with a focus in primary care).

Participants

A total of 1,098 medical students.

Measurements

Validated instruments were used to measure empathy, distress (i.e., burnout and symptoms of depression), and well-being (high quality of life).

Results

Medical student empathy scores were higher than normative samples of similarly aged individuals and were similar to other medical student samples. Domains of burnout inversely correlated with empathy (depersonalization with empathy independent of gender, all P < .02, and emotional exhaustion with emotive empathy for men, P = .009). Symptoms of depression inversely correlated with empathy for women (all P  .01). In contrast, students’ sense of personal accomplishment demonstrated a positive correlation with empathy independent of gender (all P < .001). Similarly, achieving a high quality of life in specific domains correlated with higher empathy scores (P < .05). On multivariate analysis evaluating measures of distress and well-being simultaneously, both burnout (negative correlation) and well-being (positive correlation) independently correlated with student empathy scores.

Conclusions

Both distress and well-being are related to medical student empathy. Efforts to reduce student distress should be part of broader efforts to promote student well-being, which may enhance aspects of professionalism. Additional studies of student well-being and its potential influence on professionalism are needed.

Key words: empathy, well-being, burnout, professionalism, quality of life, competency, undergraduate medical education

Articles from Journal of General Internal Medicine are provided here courtesy of Society of General Internal Medicine
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