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PLoS One. 2014 Mar 17;9(3):e89254. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0089254. eCollection 2014.

Associations between medical student empathy and personality: a multi-institutional study.

Author information

School of Health Sciences, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.
School of Health Sciences, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal; School of Economics and Management, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.
Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Beira Interior, Covilhã, Portugal.
Department of Biomedical Sciences and Medicine, University of Algarve, Faro, Portugal.
School of Economics and Management, University of Minho, Braga, Portugal.



More empathetic physicians are more likely to achieve higher patient satisfaction, adherence to treatments, and health outcomes. In the context of medical education, it is thus important to understand how personality might condition the empathetic development of medical students. Single institutional evidence shows associations between students' personality and empathy. This multi-institutional study aimed to assess such associations across institutions, looking for personality differences between students with high empathy and low empathy levels.


Participants were 472 students from three medical schools in Portugal. They completed validated adaptations to Portuguese of self-report measures of the NEO-Five Factor Inventory(NEO-FFI) and the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy(JSPE-spv). Students were categorized into two groups: "Bottom" (low empathy, N = 165) and "Top" (high empathy, N = 169) according to their empathy JSPE-spv total score terciles. Correlation analysis, binary logistic regression analysis and ROC curve analysis were conducted.


A regression model with gender, age and university had a predictive power (pseudo R2) for belonging to the top or bottom group of 6.4%. The addition of personality dimensions improved the predictive power to 16.8%. Openness to experience and Agreeableness were important to predict top or bottom empathy scores when gender, age and university were considered." Based on the considered predictors the model correctly classified 69.3% of all students.


The present multi-institutional cross-sectional study in Portugal revealed across-school associations between the Big5 dimensions Agreeableness and Openness to experience and the empathy of medical students and that personality made a significant contribution to identify the more empathic students. Therefore, medical schools may need to pay attention to the personality of medical students to understand how to enhance the empathy of medical students.

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