Study suggests empathy should be a criteria for medical school admissions

In the future, high empathy scores could help applicants get into medical school.

In addition to academic performance and other traditional competencies, high scores that measure empathy could become part of the criteria for getting into medical school, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

The study was the first to set national norms to help assess medical students’ empathy—an important factor since research has found that physicians with higher levels of empathy have greater clinical competence and deliver better patient outcomes than less empathetic doctors.

Researchers gauged empathy levels of more than 16,000 new and first through fourth-year medical students at 41 campuses of osteopathic medical schools, establishing a set of national norms which can serve as a benchmark for assessing future applicants' suitability to become doctors based on that criteria.

The national norms allow any raw score on the Jefferson Scale of Empathy to be converted to a percentile rank to assess an individual against the national data.

Medical schools could use the scores to distinguish between two applicants with similar academic qualifications. They could also use the scores to identify students who might need additional help to improve their empathy level. The scores could be a supplemental measure for admissions to postgraduate medical education programs.

“Testing for empathy should not replace the traditional admissions process,” said Mohammadreza Hojat, Ph.D., a research professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University and lead author on this study, in an announcement. “However, it can add great value in helping medical schools select individuals who rank high on empathic orientation toward patient care as well as academic capabilities.”

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Why the emphasis on empathy? It’s a factor in building patient trust, said Hojat.

“Patients who trust their doctors are more likely to reveal more about their lifestyle and other factors relevant to their illness, allowing for more accurate diagnoses and appropriate treatments,” he said.

The study was part of the Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy, sponsored by the American Osteopathic Association, American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the Cleveland Clinic.