Empathy allows a physician to understand the patient’s situation and feelings and respond appropriately. Consequently, empathy gives rise to better diagnostics and clinical outcomes. This systematic review investigates the level of empathy among medical students across the number of educational years and how this level relates to gender, specialty preferences, and nationality.
In accordance with the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses (PRISMA), the authors conducted a systematic search of studies published between February 2010 and March 2019 investigating the level of empathy among medical students. The databases PubMed, EMBASE, and PsycINFO were searched. Studies employing quantitative methodologies and published in English or Scandinavian language and examining medical students exclusively were included.
Thirty studies were included of which 24 had a cross-sectional and 6 a longitudinal study design. In 14 studies, significantly lower levels of empathy were reported by increase in the number of educational years. The remaining 16 studies identified both higher, mixed and unchanged levels. In 18 out of 27 studies it was reported that females had higher empathy scores than males. Only three out of nine studies found an association between empathy scores and specialty preferences. Nine out of 30 studies reported a propensity towards lower mean empathy scores in non-Western compared to Western countries.
The results revealed equivocal findings concerning how the empathy level among medical students develops among medical students across numbers of educational years and how empathy levels are associated with gender, specialty preferences, and nationality. Future research might benefit from focusing on how students’ empathy is displayed in clinical settings, e.g. in clinical encounters with patients, peers and other health professionals.