Does Conventional Medical Training Destroy Empathy?

20th April 2013  

By  Sayer Ji

Contributing writer  for  Wake Up World

A surprisingly consistent body of research exists indicating that conventional medical training actually reduces  practitioner empathy. What is worse, the decline in empathy appears even more pronounced at the time that the curriculum shifts towards patient-care activities.

In one study published in 2009 in the journal  Academic Medicine  entitled “The devil is in the third year: a longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school,” the authors conclude:

It is ironic that the  erosion of empathy  occurs during a time when the curriculum is shifting toward patient-care activities; this is when empathy is most essential.”

In another, higher-powered systematic review published in the same journal last year entitled “Empathy decline and its reasons: a systematic review of studies with medical students and residents,” researchers looked at data from 1990-2010, which included 18 studies, and found:

“The five longitudinal and two cross-sectional studies of residents showed a decrease in empathy during residency. The studies pointed to the clinical practice phase of training and the distress produced by aspects of the “hidden,” “formal,” and “informal” curricula as main reasons for empathy decline.”

They Concluded

The results of the reviewed studies, especially those with longitudinal data, suggest that empathy decline during medical school and residency compromises striving toward professionalism and may threaten health care quality.”

While the ironic decline of empathy associated with clinical practice during medical training is cause for concern, what may be even more disturbing is that the decline in empathy persists after training has ended.

In a 2005 study published in Academic Medicine and entitled “Mood change and empathy decline persist during three years of internal medicine training,” researchers noted that some of the  mood disturbances  and declines in empathy associated with residency/internship “never fully recover,” indicating that  conventional medical training may produce real, diagnosable psychological traumas that may never be fully resolved and may adversely affect the quality of healthcare provided.

Empathy, after all, has concrete and measurable therapeutic effects in others. In 2009,  researchers found  that practitioner empathy reduced the  duration of the common cold  in their patients. Conversely, a negative and/or indifferent attitude towards the patient has measurable adverse effects, also known as the  nocebo effect.   Indeed, our recent article titled, “Research: Some Cancer Diagnoses Kill You Quicker Than the Cancer,” discusses the finding that  the risk of suicide is up to 16 times higher and the risk of heart-related death 26.9 times higher during the first week following a cancer diagnosis versus those who were diagnosed cancer free.

Recent articles by Sayer Ji

About the author:
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Sayer Ji is the founder and director of GreenMedInfo.com and an advisory board member at the  National Health Federation, an international nonprofit, consumer-education, health-freedom organization. He co-authored the book  Cancer Killers: The Cause Is The Cure, and is working on another one with Tania Melkonian titled  EATomology: An Edible Philosophy of Food.

 


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