Medical student Diego Montelongo pauses after a patient died inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center,…
Medical student Diego Montelongo pauses after a patient died inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center, July 6, 2020, in Houston.

While medical school students gain key healing skills as their education progresses, one important quality seems to wane: empathy.

According to a study from Thomas Jefferson University  in Philadelphia, “a statistically significant decline in empathy scores was observed when comparing students in the preclinical (first and second years) and clinical (third and fourth years) phases of medical school.”

Empathy is "a cognitive attribute that involves an ability to understand the patient's pain, suffering and perspective, combined with a capability to communicate this understanding and an intention to help," according to Mohammadreza Hojat, who created the Jefferson Scale of Empathy in 2001. 

Hojat looked at more than 10,000 students enrolled in 41 of 48 campuses of Doctor of Osteopathy (DO) medical schools in the United States in 2017-2018. 

FILE - Medical students hug during a demonstration, June 5, 2020, in Salt Lake City, Utah.

DOs are fully licensed physicians who practice in all areas of medicine, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM),  and empathy is an important part of their program.

“Emphasizing a whole-person approach to treatment and care, DOs are trained to listen and partner with their patients to help them get healthy and stay well,” according to the American Osteopathic Association

In the study, women score higher in empathy than male students, African American students score higher than white students, and Asian Americans score the lowest. But everyone shows a decline going into that third year.

"As students progress through medical school, you expect empathic engagement in patient care to improve. Apparently, that's not the case," Hojat said in a news release.

Studies about students pursuing a medical degree at one of the 154 programs nationwide reflect the same decline in empathy in later years of medical school.

Why does empathy decline among med students?

“More research is needed to examine changes in empathy in longitudinal study and explore reasons for changes to avert erosion of empathy in medical school,” the study concluded.

A 2017 study calling empathy a “socioemotional construct” disputes the decline, saying the quality needs to be measured in more various ways. 

FILE - A medical student from Touro University Nevada talks with a man in a temporary parking lot shelter at Cashman Center, in Las Vegas, Nevada, March 30, 2020.

In the medical publication STAT, Dr. Lawrence G. Smith said the COVID-19 pandemic will result in doctors with greater degrees of empathy.

“As my students and others all across the country make their rounds, they will likely notice that while an infectious disease like COVID-19 afflicts people regardless of race or wealth or education, its impact varies widely based on socioeconomic status,” Smith wrote.

“Such a realization can and must change everything about the way medical students perceive their profession, as well as everything about the way future generations of physicians are trained,” he continued. 

In an email to VOA, Hojat said empathy should be considered when assessing a student’s application to medical school.

“The assessment of empathy should be used as a criterion measure for the selection of medical school applicants for training caring physicians,” he said.

Hojat’s most recent study was published in June in the Journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges