Does empathy really decline during residency training? A longitudinal look at changes in measured empathy in a community program

  • William J. Crump Univeristy of Louisville School of Medicine Trover Campus at Baptist Health Madisonville
  • Craig H. Ziegler, Ph.D.
  • R. Steve. Fricker, MPA
Keywords: emapthy, residents, rural health



Some studies, most cross sectional and urban, have shown a decline in empathy during residency training prompting medical educators to consider changes in curriculum or training environment. Our aim was to determine if there was a decline using a longitudinal, paired annual empathy measure across three years of a family medicine residency in a rural community hospital.  


We administered a validated measure from 2015 through 2020 and of the 116 opportunities for survey completion, 112 from 48 residents were available for scoring. We also asked our residents to rank 10 factors that affected their empathy scores. The Baptist Health Madisonville IRB approved the protocol as exempt and the authors have no conflicts of interest..


With a response rate of 97%, we found no statistically significant decrease in our resident scores across the three years. Scores after our PG-1 year were significantly lower than two previous comparable studies. The longitudinal, paired study design revealed very wide ranges among individual residents even when group means indicated a statistical difference. Residents also differed widely on their rankings of factors that could affect the score, with only outlook on life showing a narrow range and high ranking.


The very wide range of individual paired scores as well as the broad range of factors the residents thought affected their scores indicate that empathy is a very individual concept. Some of our residents actually increased scores leading to resilience and others declined toward cynicism. Those seeking to make changes to curriculum or training environment to facilitate empathy during residency should consider this diversity of individual resident training experience.


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