A meta-ethnography of interview-based qualitative research studies on medical students’ views and experiences of empathy
Background: Quantitative research suggests that medical students' empathy declines during their training. This meta-ethnography asks: What new understanding may be gained by a synthesis of interview-based qualitative research on medical students’ views and experiences of empathy? How can such a synthesis be undertaken?
Methodology: A meta-ethnography synthesizes individual qualitative studies to generate knowledge increasing understanding and informing debate. A literature search yielded eight qualitative studies which met the inclusion criteria. These were analyzed from a phenomenological and interpretative perspective.
Results: The meta-ethnography revealed a conceptual confusion around empathy and a tension in medical education between distancing and connecting with patients. Barriers to empathy included a lack of patient contact and a strong emphasis on the biomedical over the psycho-social aspects of the curriculum. A number of influences discussed in the paper lead students to adopt less overt ways of showing their empathy.
Conclusion: These insights deepen our understanding of the apparent decline in empathy in medical students. The lessons from these studies suggest that future curriculum development should include earlier patient contact, more emphasis on psycho-social aspects of care and address the barriers to empathy to ensure that tomorrow’s doctors are empathetic as well as competent.