Moving the needle

Innovative study to measure empathy levels in nearly all DO students

How do medical trainees grow and maintain their empathy? Researchers from the Cleveland Clinic and Thomas Jefferson University seek to answer this question.


A first-of-its-kind national research project to study medical student empathy and its relationship to osteopathic medical education is underway at 41 different osteopathic medical school locations.
The Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy (POME2) is a multi-year initiative, funded by the AOA and the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM), with about 23,000 DO student participants.

The project, led by Leonard Calabrese, DO, a professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, and researchers from the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University, will assess roughly 85 percent of osteopathic medical students using the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (JSE).

“All of us, when we become patients, want caregivers who humanize us and recognize what the disease we have means to us as individuals,” says Dr. Calabrese. “In supporting this study, the osteopathic profession is declaring that empathy is the fifth vital sign. We are going to study empathy in medicine like it has never been studied before. Can we grow empathy? How can we maintain it? There are so many unanswered questions. We will then share what we learn, with the hope that our findings will improve empathy education.”

Last year, Dr. Calabrese outlined the rationale behind and intentions for the research project in an editorial in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

‘The cornerstone of osteopathic medical practice’

Kenya McRae, JD, PhD, AOA vice president of research, agrees with Dr. Calabrese’s assertion that this project will be a critical addition to the body of empathy research that currently exists.

“Empathy is the cornerstone of osteopathic medical practice and some evidence exists linking a physician’s empathy to clinical competence,” she says. “This project is intended to delve deeper, to establish baselines for osteopathic medical students’ empathy levels as well as identify how curriculum can support empathy retention.”

The current stage of the project is a cross-sectional study examining empathy norms in medical students. First-year through fourth-year medical students will participate in the study, helping to create a baseline level of empathy for each year of education.

In the future, the project leaders hope to conduct an additional longitudinal study that follows students over several years in order to examine how empathy levels may shift in trainees throughout their medical education.

Empathy focus

In addition to helping fund this empathy study, the AOA is exploring other ways to elevate empathy and move the conversation from just the osteopathic profession to all physicians, with DOs leading the way.

The association’s Osteopathic Philosophy Task Force, chaired by Thomas Cavalieri, DO, has made recommendations on how to begin doing that, including:

  • Developing curriculum for trainees and DOs to provide education on empathy and resources for enhancing the culture of empathy at the practice/institutional level.
  • Creating a website to serve as an additional source of empathy content.

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