Thursday, September 13, 2012

Empathy Burnout in Medical Students



Research has shown that medical students experience a significant decline in empathy by the time they enter their third year of medical school. This was particularly the case for students who rated lower in empathy at the beginning of their studies and those in technology oriented specialties.

The researchers commented that “when they embark on the journey to become physicians, most students are enthusiastic, filled with idealism and a genuine intention to serve those in need of help”. So what is happening?

There are many factors that can lead to empathy burn out in young doctors. For starters, it is not hard to imagine the stress and pressure involved in keeping up with the demands of medical training. The sheer volume of material that students need to cover is phenomenal. In addition to this, the environment in the hospital ward can be highly taxing and lead to both physical and mental exhaustion. For some students, negative experiences with consumers who are rude or even abusive can be extremely disheartening.
There is also a tendency for doctors to focus increasingly on their diagnostic tools and therapeutic technology, losing sight of their patient in the midst of their condition and test results.

Without empathy, there can be no consumer centred care. So how can we as consumers ensure that medical students and young doctors are able to guard against this sort of desensitisation to the plight of their patients?

While training and education go a long way towards raising doctors’ awareness of the risks of empathy burnout, this is not enough. Doctors need to be supported throughout their career to not lose sight of the humanistic aspects of their profession. Part of the solution would be to address problems with the overall health system that put excessive time pressures on doctors, preventing them from connecting with their patients.

For our part, the use of consumer stories could also be an effective means of reminding doctors how it feels to access the health care system from the other side.  We can also encourage doctors when they do a good job by providing positive feedback, either as a few words of thanks or in written form. In this way, doctors can see that the steps they take to engage and empathise with us as health care consumers is truly appreciated.

Nicole Moyle
Research Assistant

Bibliography
Chhabra, K.  ‘In medicine, is there a place for learning from those we serve?’ KevinMD.com

Accessed online 26 August 2012.
Hojat, M., Vergare, M., Maxwell, K., Brainard, G., Herrine, S., Isenbers, G., Veloski, J., & Gonnella, J. 2009. ‘The Devil is in the Third Year: A Longitudinal Study of Erosion of Empathy in Medical School’. Academic Medicine, 84(9): 1182-1191.

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