The Scary Truth About Medical School and the Loss of Empathy

FB_Post_Ads.012Happy Halloween, my spooky readers! Hopefully your practice exams results and interviews aren’t scaring you too badly these days.

As a medical school student who recently dissected a cadaver, loves scary movies and owns more Halloween earrings than any reasonable human being should, you would infer that I’m not easily scared. I did, however, read some articles this week that gave me chills.

If you’re interested in stumbling upon these terrifying articles, all you have to do is Google “Loss of empathy during medical school.” Some of the scarier examples are here and here. There are dozens of similar articles available and I have read almost all of them. Now, why do these articles scare me so badly?

As a first year student, I’m the epitome of idealistic. I believe in my ability to help people, improve the medical field, and hopefully positively impact medical education in this country. I want to help people and feel fulfilled by my work. What all these articles tell me is that I’m naive and wrong. By the time I am finished with my medical school education, I will most likely be burnt out, exhausted and noticeably less empathetic than I am right now.

That’s terrifying! I consider one of my best assets as a medical school student to be my ability to empathize with my patients and use that empathy to provide the best care possible. According to these articles, I’m destined to lose my best quality!

Interestingly enough, research can even pinpoint the time frame in which this shift will occur. Most studies point to the third year of medical school. Between the demands on students’ time, the lack of sleep, the constantly changing environment of rotations and the hierarchy of the hospital system, somewhere the humanity gets lots and empathy goes out the door.

Now, hopefully that won’t be the case. Hopefully I will be able to hold onto my empathetic, idealistic nature. Several of the articles point to changing the nature of medical school education as a way to mitigate the loss of empathy and overall physician burnout. Unfortunately, none of these changes seem to be happening fast enough to save me from my inevitable loss of empathy.

So, what do you think when you read these articles as a current student or a pre-med student? How can we prevent this loss of empathy? Are you scared?

Happy studying!

  • Cléa Marsh

    It seems completely asinine to me that the path to becoming a doctor is notorious for being the major factor in diminishing the very doctors it is to create… Sure, the process shouldn’t be easy, so as to deter the faint of heart, but for those who have proven to be worthy of earning their medical degree–why beat them while they are down? Why break them to the point that all empathy is lost? Rather than having the “Rocky Balboa” moment at the top of the stairs, these students are leaving medical school with a chip on their shoulder. We’re not creating expert medical providers, we’re creating egotistical business-people who are riding the title of MD like its a magic carpet–as if all work stops after they earn that degree. I, for one, do not want to be one of THOSE doctors. I’d rather be a part of the solution, not add to the problem.

  • Leigh’s Mom

    My son will graduate from medical school this May. I have gotten to know many people in his class. Those who were caring and empathetic when they started are still caring and empathetic. Those who were jerks in the beginning are still jerks.

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