Empathy in the doctor-patient relationship as viewed by first-year medical students: data on validity and sensibility to change of the Jefferson Measure in Portugal.

José Loureiro, Manuel Gonçalves-Pereira, Bruno Trancas, J M Caldas-de-Almeida, Alexandre Castro-Caldas


Empathy is a key feature of the doctor-patient relationship. Several studies have shown a link between empathic relationships and clinical outcomes. However, reports of a decline in empathy over the course of undergraduate medical education and medical practice have raised concern among medical educators. Our study focuses on the exploration of the temporal stability of attitudes towards empathy in first-year medical students. We also aimed to characterise this sample regarding attitudes towards empathy and its associations with socio-demographic determinants, motives for entering Medicine and professional expectations. Finally, we wanted to contribute to the preliminary validation in Portugal of the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy, students' version (JSPE-S), following Hojat's definition of empathy as a predominantly cognitive concept.We selected a non-randomized sample of 81 first-year medical students, in Lisbon. For the evaluation of the motives for choosing Medicine as a career, we adapted a questionnaire based on the items reported by Vaglum and associates. For self-report assessment of attitudes towards empathy, we used a Portuguese translation of the JSPE- -S. Finally, we analysed the evolution of empathy-related attitudes through a six-month period that included Medical Psychology teaching (given that the curriculum would be expected to raise empathy-driven attitudes and skills).The JSPE-S total score increased from baseline to follow-up assessments (p=0.001). At the baseline, we found a negative correlation between the "status/security" motivation index and the JSPE-S "standing in patient shoes" component, while there was a positive correlation between the "people oriented" motivation index and the JSPE-S "compassionate care" factor. Psychometric properties were acceptable for both the JSPE-S and the motivation questionnaire.In general, our findings support the idea that empathy can be learnt in medical schools. This study also provides evidence for the validation of the JSPE-S and for the acceptability of an instrument assessing motivation for medical school, in Portugal. Albeit weak, the correlations between motivational factors and empathy components deserve further exploration in research.

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