Educating for Empathy

A Review


  • This work was conducted without funding. This work has not been presented at any conference nor is under review elsewhere. Neither author has any conflict of interest with the topics discussed in this work.

Address correspondence and requests for reprints to Dr. Baernstein: Harborview Medical Center, 325 9th Avenue, Box 359702, Seattle, WA 98104 (e-mail:


OBJECTIVE: Empathy in the medical setting is appreciation of the patient's emotions and expression of that awareness to the patient. Named as an essential learning objective by the American Association of Medical Colleges, empathy is believed to significantly influence patient satisfaction, adherence to medical recommendations, clinical outcomes, and professional satisfaction. The objective of this study was to identify effective strategies to enhance empathy in undergraduate medical students.

DATA SOURCES: We searched PubMed for studies that address the effectiveness of strategies for teaching empathy to medical students. We identified 13 peer-reviewed, English language, qualitative and quantitative studies reporting primary data on interventions that aim to foster empathy in undergraduate medical students, using Medical Subject Heading terms education, medical, undergraduate or student, medical crossed with empathy.

RESULTS: These studies indicate that empathy may be amenable to positive change with a range of interventional strategies. Communication skill workshops addressing the behavioral dimension of empathy show greatest quantitative impact on participants. However, current studies are challenged by varying definitions of empathy, small sample sizes, lack of adequate control groups, and variation among existing empathy measurement instruments.

CONCLUSION: Given the methodological limitations of the available studies, and uncertainty about which dimensions of empathy should be addressed, larger studies using validated measurement tools are recommended.