Soft skills

Will medical schools start testing for empathy?

A new JAOA study gauged the empathy levels of more than 16,000 DO students to establish a set of national norms, which serve as a benchmark for assessing future applicants’ suitability to the profession.


High empathy scores could become part of the criteria for getting into medical school, according to research published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

The study gauged empathy levels of 16,149 new matriculants and first- through fourth-year medical students, establishing a set of national norms, which serve as a benchmark for assessing future applicants’ suitability to the profession.

Researchers say the national norms can help to distinguish between two applicants with similar academic qualifications and identify students who might need additional educational remedies to bolster their level of empathy.

The study has attracted significant media attention, including coverage in the Chicago Tribune, FierceHealthcare and Becker’s Hospital Review.

“Testing for empathy should not replace the traditional admissions process,” says Mohammedreza Hojat, PhD, a research professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University and lead author on this study. “However, it can add great value in helping medical schools select individuals who rank high on empathic orientation toward patient care as well as academic capabilities.”

The importance of empathy

Research indicates that physicians with higher levels of empathy demonstrate greater clinical competence and deliver better patient outcomes than less empathetic doctors.

“When patients feel like their doctor cares about and understands them, they are more likely to trust them,” Dr. Hojat explains. “Patients who trust their doctors are more likely to reveal more about their lifestyle and other factors relevant to their illness, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatments.”

Patient compliance also improves when trust develops in a physician-patient relationship, meaning patients are more likely to follow instructions, including taking medication and changing harmful habits.

A growing field of study

Dr. Hojat and his team’s cross-sectional study assessed empathy scores at all levels of medical school education for more than 16,000 osteopathic medical students across 41 campuses. This nationwide study developed national norms in empathy for the first time. It also allows researchers to examine a number of issues, including differences in empathy among students in different years of medical school.

“Some studies with allopathic medical students showed that once they move from the first two years in medical school and into the clinical years when they actually work with patients, their empathy begins to decline,” says Dr. Hojat. “It will be interesting to see if that pattern of decline can also be observed in osteopathic medical students and to explore reasons for such changes, and study approaches to enhance and retain empathy in physicians-in-training.”

This cross-sectional study doesn’t provide a clear-cut look at the differences in empathy between pre-clinical and clinical students because the researchers surveyed different groups of students. To examine how DO students’ empathy levels change during training, Dr. Hojat and his team are undertaking a prospective longitudinal study to follow a cohort of students entering medical schools in the coming academic year (2019-2020) as they progress through medical school from matriculation to graduation.

Related reading:

Empathy tips from a cancer survivor turned pediatric resident

10 tips for new medical students


  1. Ann Hupe DO

    We live in a society in which empathy is not emphasized as a positive trait to have and demonstrate. Yeah, patients do want empathic physicians, but the controlling administrative part of medicine hates this trait because it means seeing less patients per hour. To be honest, considering how frantic, arduous, and torturous it is to be a physician in the first place, maintaining a sense of empathy is very difficult.

    You can’t just attempt to determine a person’s empathic demonstrations, nor can you just train medical students to be more empathic. You also need to train them how to avoid being too victimized by PTSD which kills empathy. (Always remember that soldiers and veterans do not have a monopoly on PTSD. Some of my worst moments were generated during ER rotations as a medical student.) Any physician who claims s/he has never been affected by it either is a liar, in denial, or spends too much time behind a desk, avoiding any patient contact.

  2. Chris Fernandez

    How competent could a medical provider be when they fail to recognize that their patient, before ANYTHING ELSE is a human being, just like them. There are way to many people in this field who approach patients as if they didn’t go to medical school, therefore they have nothing to “teach” the doctor, and as a result don’t listen or bother to ask how XYZ symptoms/conditions are limiting and in many cases destroying their quality of life, ability to obtain and maintain productive work, and/or carry on with healthy relationships so they can take care of their families. Many medical providers think nothing of or feel entitled to discriminate against certain patients with stigmatizing conditions (obesity – should they bother providing time and energy to an obese patient with a heart condition? – these docs with biases have a tendency to refrain from asking these “wastes of time” how they might have arrived at this state of health. Human beings behave the way they do because of the experiences they’ve had, positive or otherwise. I’m saying every medical practioner is lacking empathy nor do ALL of them discriminate, but too many do, and tragically, patients who are extremely vulnerable are often denied appropriate and effective care that would heal or at least control conditions so that they can have a life worth living for. When an individual can trust that their provider will not do harm by withholding treatment as punishment, the doc might get honest responses and more cooperation

    1. Laura

      Great point, as I felt that a lot of doctors forget that they are interacting with a PERSON, not a MEDICAL CHART. I agree that a lot of doctors – particularly specialists – don’t seem interested in asking or understanding how symptoms affect the pt’s quality of life.

  3. Laura

    I am in 100% support of medical schools looking for empathy. I’m not sure if “test” is the right word, since empathy and other traits can’t always be taught. As a veteran patient and an front desk staff at an outpatient mental health clinic, empathy goes a LONG way in building relationships. I have seen a lot of doctors who were competent but didn’t seem interested in understanding my insights and feelings about my conditions. When patient or parent calls as a new patient and mentions they/their kid’s difficulties, I say, “I’m sorry to hear that, I’m so glad you found us,” even if the problem seems routine.

    Not only is empathy important, but also humility. As a former teacher, I believe my future roles as a doctor is educate and collaborate with my patients, not dictate. I may be the expert in the human body, but my patients are the experts in themselves. I hate phrases such as “the doctor knows best” because nobody knows everything. Patients can teach doctors just as much as doctors can teach patients.

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