A Cross-sectional Measurement of Medical Student Empathy
Daniel Chen, MD1, Robert Lew, PhD2,3, Warren Hershman, MD, MPH1,
and Jay Orlander, MD, MPH1,4
1Section of General Internal Medicine, Evans Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston, MA, USA;2Department of
Biostatistics, Boston University School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA;3MAVERIC, VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, MA, USA;4Medical
Service, VA Boston Healthcare System, Boston, MA, USA.
BACKGROUND: Empathy is important in the physician–
patient relationship. Prior studies have suggested that
physician empathy may decline with clinical training.
OBJECTIVE: To measure and examine student empa-
thy across medical school years.
DESIGN AND PARTICIPANTS: A cross-sectional stud of
students at Boston University School of Medicine in
2006. Incoming students plus each class near the end
of the academic year were surveyed.
MEASUREMENTS: The Jefferson Scale of Physician
Empathy–Student Version (JSPE-S), a validated 20-item
self-administered questionnaire with a total score ranging
confounders such as gender, age, anticipated financial
debt upon graduation, and future career interest.
RESULTS: 658 students participated in the study
(81.4% of the school population). The first-year medical
student class had the highest empathy scores (118.5),
whereas the fourth-year class had the lowest empathy
scores (106.6). Measured empathy differed between
second- and third-year classes (118.2 vs 112.7, P<
.001), corresponding to the first year of clinical training.
Empathy appears to increase from the incoming to the
first-year class (115.5 vs 118.5, P=.02). Students
preferring people-oriented specialties had higher empa-
thy scores than students preferring technology-oriented
specialties (114.6 vs 111.4, P=.002). Female students
were more likely than male students to choose people-
oriented specialties (51.5 vs 26.9%, P<.001). Females
had higher JSPE-S scores than males (116.5 vs 112.1,
P<.001). Age and debt did not affect empathy scores.
CONCLUSIONS: Empathy scores of students in the
preclinical years were higher than in the clinical years.
Efforts are needed to determine whether differences in
empathy scores among the classes are cohort effects or
represent changes occurring in the course of medical
education. Future research is needed to confirm whether
clinical training impacts empathy negatively, and, if so,
whether interventions can be designed to mitigate this
KEY WORDS: empathy; medical student education; physician attitudes.
J Gen Intern Med 22(10):1434–8
© Society of General Internal Medicine 2007
Empathy is the cornerstone of the physician–patient relation-
ship. It is the physician’s ability to cognitively recognize a
patient’s perspectives and experiences, and convey such an
understanding back to the patient.1,2This understanding
allows the patient to feel respected and validated.3,4Empathy
promotes patient and physician satisfaction, contributes to
patient enabling and participation, and may improve patient
outcomes.1,5–10Furthermore, empathy improves the quality of
data obtained from the patient, improves the physician’s
diagnostic ability, and decreases the rate of miscommunication
There is concern among educators that clinical training may
have an adverse effect on medical resident and student
empathy. In one cohort of internal medical residents, empathy
was measured to be highest at the beginning but decreasing by
the end of internship, and remained low through to the end of
residency.12,13The work-related challenges, including long
work hours and sleep deprivation, are reasons believed to
contribute to this decline.14Studies among students have
shown that empathy measured over the third year of one
cohort of medical students declined,15and that a single
medical school class had higher measured empathy at the
start compared to the end of medical school.16
This study investigates empathy more closely across the
entirety of medical school education while controlling for the
potential confounding effects of gender, age, anticipated
financial debt upon graduation, and future career interests.
This is a cross-sectional study of all medical students enrolled
at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) during 2006.
This study was approved by the Boston University Medical
Center Institutional Review Board.
All incoming medical students and those completing first-
through fourth-year medical school in 2006 were eligible to
participate in the study.
Received February 19, 2007
Revised June 12, 2007
Accepted July 3, 2007
Published online July 26, 2007
The BUSM curriculum is a traditional 4-year medical school
with 2 years of preclinical study, with limited patient contact,
followed by 2 years of clinical clerkships and electives.
One author (DC) distributed the self-administered, anony-
mous surveys to the medical students between March and
September 2006. Incoming medical students were surveyed
during Orientation Week, before the beginning of first-year
medical school classes. First- through fourth-year medical
students were surveyed during classes or class events, where
attendance was recommended but not mandatory, at the end
of their academic year. In total, 5 medical school classes were
The primary measure of empathy, the Jefferson Scale of
Physician Empathy–Student Version (JSPE-S), is a 20-item
psychometrically validated instrument measuring components
of empathy among health professionals in patient care situa-
tions.2,17,18Respondents indicate their level of agreement to
each item on a 7-point Likert scale. The JSPE-S total score
ranges from 20 to 140, with higher values indicating a higher
degree of empathy.2,17,18In past studies, total scores among
medical students ranged from 115 to 123.1 and standard
deviations ranged from 9.9 to 14.1.2,15,19,20
Students also specified gender, age, anticipated financial
debt, and likelihood of choosing various specialties. Gender
was included because practicing female physicians and med-
ical students have been found to have higher empathy than
their male counterparts.2,19As empathy involves aspects of
perception and concern, which may be gained with more
maturity, we included age as a confounder.21The anticipated
level of financial indebtedness at graduation was assessed to
the nearest $25,000. Financial indebtedness may potentially
influence the selection of career choice and cause high debt
students to prefer more lucrative (often technical) specialties.
Students indicated their career specialty intentions, in
terms of likelihood of entering each of the specialties listed in
Table 1, on a 4-point Likert scale (very unlikely=1,...very likely=
4). The people-oriented and technology-oriented specialty
categorizations were based on categories determined in prior
studies.2,17Each student was assigned to one of these two
categories after comparing his or her average Likert score for
each group of specialties. For example, if the average score for
all people-oriented specialties was 2.0 and the average score
for technology-oriented specialties was 2.8, the student was
considered preferring technology-oriented specialties. Stu-
dents with no difference in their scores were not included in
analyses of specialty preference. We believed that students
with higher measured empathy might associate with the
people-oriented careers. As such, student career preferences
could potentially confound our results and, thus, needed to be
controlled. This construct does not imply that career prefer-
ence calibrates empathy but instead that students who feel
that empathy enhances their skills would gravitate toward
higher levels of patient contact.
A nonresponder was defined as a student who failed to
return an administered survey. An adequate response to the
survey was defined as having 16 or more of the 20 JSPE-S
questions answered. Surveys with fewer than 16 JSPE-S
questions answeredwerediscarded. Incases where surveys were
the total scores to give a score with a denominator of 140.
Missing values were rare for most demographic factors and
were simply imputed: age (overall mean) and debt category
(mode). Missing values could not be imputed in a simple way
for gender as imputation of gender affected the analysis. Thus,
several approaches were taken. First, data were stratified into
three groups, male, female, and gender unspecified. Second,
using cases where gender was known as the end point, we
constructed a discriminate function from the 20 JSPE-S ques-
tions to discriminate male from female. Next, we applied this rule
to the gender unspecified subgroup and imputed their gender.
Descriptive statistics and analyses of variance (ANOVAs)
were run to compare the different JSPE-S scores among the
different classes and categorized groups, whereas controlling
for the effects of gender, age, anticipated financial indebted-
ness, and career preference. Post hoc ANOVA pairwise com-
parisons were made using Tukey’s HSD test. All computations
were done with SAS statistical software version 9.
Of the 723 surveys distributed, 658 surveys were returned for
an overall response rate of 91.0%. These 658 respondents
represent 81.4% of the total students at BUSM in 2006. No
differences are seen in the demographic features (age and
gender) between responders and nonresponders in the medical
school (data not shown). Third-year students have the lowest
response rate and the fourth year students have the lowest
percentage surveyed (see Table 2).
Table 2 shows the number of students by class among the
658 responding medical students. The number of surveys used
in the analysis was 648 because 10 surveys had fewer than 16
out of 20 responses.
The primary multivariate ANOVA considers 4 factors: class,
gender, anticipated financial debt, and career preference as well
as age. The initial ANOVA model contains all interactions, but
highly nonsignificant interaction terms are discarded (data not
shown). Hence, the ANOVA factors of interest are class (P<.001),
gender (P<.001), age (P=.04), debt (P=.71), career preference
(P=.003), and the gender–class interaction term (P=.11).
The 15 subjects with unspecified gender have the lowest
mean total scores, indicating that the gender values are not
missing at random. A discriminant function based on the
20-item JSPE-S, applied to the gender unspecified surveys,
classifies all the unspecified surveys as males. While ex-
Table 1. Career Preference Categories17,18
People-oriented specialties Technology-oriented specialties
Obstetrics and gynecology
Surgery and surgical subspecialties
Chen et al.: Measurement of Medical Student Empathy
treme, the resultant proportions become more concordant
with the proportions of male and female in the medical
school (data not shown).
Table 3 shows the JSPE-S scores by class. The first-year
medical school class has the highest empathy scores (118.5),
whereas the fourth-year class has the lowest empathy scores
(106.6). No difference is seen between first- and second-year
classes (118.5 vs 118.2, P=.77), or between third- and fourth-
year classes (112.7 vs 106.6, P=.10). There is a difference be-
tween second- and third-year classes (118.2 vs 112.7, P<.001),
which corresponds to the first clinical year in medical school.
There is also a difference in JSPE-S scores between incoming
and first-year classes (115.5 vs 118.5, P=.02), and between
incoming and second-year classes (115.5 vs118.2, P= .04). The
incoming class has suggestive differences in empathy scores
when compared to the third-year class (115.5 vs 112.7, P=.05),
and the incoming class differs from the fourth-year class
(115.5 vs 106.6, P=.02).
When looking at the differences in JSPE-S scores by gender,
female medical students have higher empathy than male
medical students (116.5 vs 112.1, P<.001). Students prefer-
ring people-oriented specialties as a career have higher
empathy than students preferring technology-oriented special-
ties (114.6 vs 111.4, P=.002). Age, while significant, has a small
effect on empathy scores (scores rise 0.6 with age), but has no
effect on other associations. Female students prefer people-
oriented specialties more than men (61.9 vs 36.1%, P<.001).
In our analysis, no association is noted between career pre-
ference and anticipated financial debt among women (P=.33)
or men (P=.96). There is no relationship seen between gender
and anticipated financial indebtedness (P=.29) or between
different medical school classes and anticipated financial
indebtedness (P=.59). In addition, we find that 72.1% of med-
ical students anticipate having more than $200,000 debt after
graduation, whereas 14.8% of students anticipate having less
than $25,000 debt.
In our cross-sectional study, empathy appears to increase
during the first year of medical school, but falls after the third
year (first clinical year) and remains down through the final
year of medical school. JSPE-S scores differ by as great as
11.9 points between the first- and fourth-year classes after
adjusting for gender, age, financial indebtedness, and career
Our results, although cross-sectional, are consistent with
previous studies, suggesting that empathy decreases after
clinical training in medical school. Using the JSPE-S, one
cohort of medical students had a decline in empathy during
the third year of medical school.15This group of 125 third-year
medical students exhibited a postclerkship decline in empathy
of 2.5 points (123.1 to 120.6). The authors found no significant
associations between changes in empathy scores and gender,
age, or academic performance on step 1 of the USMLE.15
Another group measured empathy in a cohort of medical
students at the beginning of medical school and just before
graduation and found lower empathy scores in the graduating
class.16Among another group of health care professionals,
dental students, empathy scores also decreased after patient
care responsibilities began.20The only other cross-sectional
study of multiple medical school classes that we could find did
not demonstrate differences in empathy across classes, but
this study used an outcome measure, which was not specifi-
cally designed for health professionals.22
Studies of medical resident empathy have noted similar
declines. A cross-sectional study in an internal medicine
program observed that first-year residents scored 4 points
higher on the JSPE–Physician Version than third-year resi-
dents (117.5 vs 113.5, P=.31).11
Whereas these studies lack an assessment of behavior, one
recent report showed a positive association between the
individuals’ scores on the JSPE-S in medical school and
ratings of their empathic behavior made by their residency
program director 3 years later.23This study suggests a long-
term predictive validity of the self-report empathy scale.
Various stressful aspects of medical education and training,
such as long work-hours and sleep deprivation, as well as
dependence on technology for diagnoses, shorter patient
hospitalizations, and limited bedside interactions may contrib-
ute to decreases in empathy.14,24–27In response, some pro-
grams now include clinical narrative or critical incident
writing; classes on medically themed creative writing, litera-
ture and art; journal writing; and use of standardized patients
in the medical education curriculum to maintain or increase
empathy.28–34Studies offer conflicting results with respect to
their impact on empathy. One group preliminarily measured
an increase in empathy in students who participated in role-
playingand simulated patient scenarios.35In contrast, an entire
Table 3. JSPE-S Scores by Medical School Class
Class JSPE-S scoreStandard error
The class was adjusted for gender, age, anticipated financial indebted-
ness, career preference, and gender–class interaction.
Groups that share the same superscript are not significantly different
from one another. All other differences in JSPE-S scores are significant at
the P<.05 level.
Table 2. Demographics and Characteristics of the Medical School Classes
Incoming First-year Second-year Third-yearFourth-yearTotals all classes
Number of students
Number of surveys distributed
Number of responders (response rate %)
Percentage of class surveyed (%)
Chen et al.: Measurement of Medical Student Empathy
medical school class taking a 4-month patient-interviewing
course designed to teach communication and emphasize empa-
thy did not show an improvement in the latter.16A recent review
suggests that empathy may be amenable to a range of interven-
tional strategies.36Qualitative data from independent observa-
tions and unvalidated surveys note that these interventions
improve student communication skills and empathy. Lastly,
student course evaluations and feedback suggest that students
respond positively to these educational interventions and per-
ceive themselves to be more sensitive and empathic toward their
patients from such activities despite a lack of more objective
Another possible explanation for the observed decrease in
empathy may be an acculturation phenomenon. Student
doctors experience a wide range of emotions and stresses and
may struggle to maintain their empathy.14,38This would
suggest that to remain effective for patients, students and
trainees become less empathic as they face emotionally
challenging and draining situations. Outcome measures to
assess such a hypothesis should be included in future
We found that medical students expressing a preference for
people-oriented specialties had higher empathy scores than
those expressing a preference for technology-oriented special-
ties. These data are consistent with another study, which
found that students likely choosing family medicine, internal
medicine, psychiatry, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecolo-
gy had higher empathy scores than all other specialties, when
controlled for gender effects.22
Previous studies have demonstrated a difference in empa-
thy among practicing physicians of different specialties.
Physicians in people-oriented specialties, such as primary
care specialties (family medicine, internal medicine, and
pediatrics), obstetrics and gynecology, emergency medicine,
psychiatry, and medical subspecialties, had higher average
empathy scores than physicians in technology-oriented spe-
cialties—anesthesiology, radiology, pathology, surgery, and
surgical subspecialties (see Table 1).2,17Psychiatrists had the
highest mean JSPE–Physician Version score (127.0), primary
care specialists scored from 120–122, and the lowest values
were noted in orthopedic surgeons and anesthesiologists
Students may possibly be prestratified in career preferences
before coming to medical school, with those students who are
naturally endowed with more empathy attracted to people-
oriented specialties. Although we categorized medical students
as preferring either people-oriented or technology-oriented
specialties, the vast majority of incoming and first- through
third-year medical students had small mean differences
ranging from 0.46 to 0.62 when comparing their average Likert
score for the people-oriented and technology-oriented specialty
groups. This suggests that they may not be definitive in their
career preference early in medical school and raises the
possibility of changing career preferences with different experi-
ences in medical school. Future studies should determine
whether fostering empathy skills impacts student career
preferences. With fewer graduating medical students selecting
careers in primary care (people oriented) specialties,39–41if
enhancement in empathy can be achieved and be shown to
modify career preference, potential policy implications regard-
ing medical curricula and resource allocation could be possibly
driven by societal or regional needs for primary care clinicians.
There are several limitations of our study. First, our
measurement of empathy, the JSPE-S, is self-reported. It
measures medical students’ orientation to empathy and is
not correlated with behavior. A recently demonstrated correla-
tion between individuals’ empathy scores at the beginning of
third year of medical school and ratings of their empathic
behavior at the end of their first year of postgraduate training
does suggest predictive validity of the JSPE-S.23Studies of
practicing physicians have noted that JSPE score difference is as
great as 11 between practicing psychiatrists and anesthesiolo-
gists,18a range difference seen in some of our comparisons.
A second limitation of our study is the possibility of cohort
effects. We recognize this as a limitation of all cross-sectional
studies. However, except for our new finding of differences seen
in the preclinical years, our data are consistent with other
studies of medical student empathy, which suggest a decline
during medical school.15,16Unexpectedly, we found that there
is an increase in empathy scores from beginning to end of first-
year among the medical students. As the JSPE-S questions
were designed to assess the empathy of health care providers
in patient-provider situations, it is possible that a complete
lack of clinical exposure impacts how the JSPE-S is completed
by incoming students and hence the instrument may be
invalid in this group. Whereas there is limited patient contact
in the first 2 years of our medical school, students do interact
with patients when shadowing practicing physicians and
participating in their clinical skills training courses. Patient
contact in the context of the first 2 years of medical school
possibly alters the perception of students so that the subjective
anchors on JSPE-S questions and Likert-scale anchors are
interpreted differently. Alternatively, the limited clinical expo-
sure during the first 2 years of medical school may positively
influence medical students’ empathy by reinforcing their
desire to help people through medicine. A third hypothesis is
that this represents a cohort effect. The robustness of our
observation could be tested by sequentially tracking these
medical student cohorts.
Lastly, we acknowledge that attendance, survey participa-
tion, and possibly response (e.g., level of empathy) may be
influenced by the situations or events during which we
obtained the data.
Although our study is limited to one medical school, we feel
that our results can be generalized to medical schools that
have a traditional structure similar to ours. In particular, we
are struck by the consistency of the decline in score after a full
year of clinical exposure.
Empathy is important in the physician–patient relationship
and has clear benefits for the patient and the physician. We
found that there are differences in the empathy among the
different classes and that empathy declines with increased
clinical training in medical school. Whether the decline is
reflective of the prevalent teaching methods and modifiable
with better methods or is an unavoidable psychological effect
of the acculturation process into the medical profession is not
The association of measured empathy and career preference
among medical students is interesting. Although medical
students indicate a career preference, the vast majority of
Chen et al.: Measurement of Medical Student Empathy
them are not strongly committed in their choice in the first
3 years of medical school. This association suggests the
possibility that career preferences can possibly be changed
with changes in empathy. Current available data on the impact
of interventions does not provide conclusive evidence that
empathic behavior can be effectively and permanently im-
proved. Future interventions should examine relationships
between empathy, career preferences, and links with clinician
behavior, as such finding would have the largest impact on
educational policy and practice.
Acknowledgment: Permission to use the JSPE-S was obtained
from the Jefferson Medical College Center for Research in Medical
Education and Health Care. We thank Phyllis Carr, MD, BUSM, for
her role in reviewing the manuscript.
Funding sources: None of the authors received any funding
support for the study.
Conflict of interest statement: None disclosed.
Corresponding Author: Daniel Chen, MD; Section of General
Internal Medicine, Evans Department of Medicine, Boston University
School of Medicine, 91 East Concord Street, MAT 2, Boston, MA
02118, USA (e-mail: email@example.com).
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