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Encephale. 2018 Jun 27. pii: S0013-7006(18)30084-8. doi: 10.1016/j.encep.2018.05.003. [Epub ahead of print]

Decline of empathy among medical students: Dehumanization or useful coping process?

Author information

1
Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychological Medicine, University Day Hospital "La Clé", Liège, Belgium; Department of Medical Psychology, University of Liège, CHU of Liège, Liège, Belgium. Electronic address: jmtriffaux@uliege.be.
2
University of Paris VII Denis-Diderot (CRPMS), Paris, France.
3
Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychological Medicine, University Day Hospital "La Clé", Liège, Belgium; Department of Clinical Psychology, University of Liège, Liège, Belgium.

Abstract

OBJECTIVES:

Empathy is central in patient-physician interactions and understanding its development is decisive for education. However, scientific literatures report a striking decline of empathy among medical students during their study course. Firstly, we aimed to replicate this result on a Belgian population. Secondly, as well reported by literature, we expected higher empathy scores for women. Lastly, as central, we expected higher empathy levels for medical students than for "control" students (commercial students were used as a control group: social interactions without a curing aspect) at the beginning of their study course, suggesting that empathy drives students to select specific education fields.

METHODS:

Through a cross-sectional design, we assessed students from medical and commercial educations at different years of study with the Basic Empathy Scale (N=1602). We compared: (1) empathy scores at different scholar levels for both populations; (2) scores between men and women; (3) empathy scores between medical and commercial students in their first year of study.

RESULTS:

As expected, a significant empathy decline was displayed over time for medical students; women reported significant higher empathy scores than men; and, in their first year, medical students presented significant higher empathy scores than commercials.

CONCLUSIONS:

Replicating the empathy decline on several student populations is crucial, especially by using different tools. This decline is a multi-factorial process that mainly reflects self-representation changes. The empathy gender bias is a strong effect observed in several empathy-linked phenomena. Finally, empathy is not only central but also drives students to select specific education fields.

KEYWORDS:

Education achievement; Empathy decline; Gender bias; In- and out-group belonging.; Medical students; Social cognitive career theory

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