Empathy in Medical Education: Its Nature and Nurture — a Qualitative Study of the Views of Students and Tutors

William F. Laughey, Jane Atkinson, Alison M. Craig, Laura Douglas, Megan El Brown, Jessica L. Scott, Hugh Alberti, Gabrielle M. Finn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context: Medical education is committed to teaching patient centred communication and empathy. However, quantitative research suggests empathy scores tend to decline as students progress through medical school. In qualitative terms, there is a need to better understand how students and tutors view the practice and teaching of clinical empathy and the phenomenon of empathic erosion. Methods: Working within a constructivist paradigm, researchers thematically analysed the individual interview data from a purposive sample of 13 senior students and 9 tutors. Results: The four major themes were as follows: (1) ‘the nature of empathy’, including the concept of the innate empathy that students already possess at the beginning of medical school; (2) ‘beyond the formal curriculum’ and the central importance of role modelling; (3) ‘the formal curriculum and the tick-box influence of assessments’; and (4) the ‘durability of empathy’, including ethical erosion and resilience. A garden model of empathy development is proposed — beginning with the innate seeds of empathy that students bring to medical school, the flowering of empathy is a fragile process, subject to both enablers and barriers in the formal, informal, and hidden curricula. Conclusion: This study provides insights into empathic erosion in medical school, including the problems of negative role modelling and the limitations of an assessment system that rewards ‘tick-box’ representations of empathy, rather than true acts of compassion. It also identifies factors that should enable the flowering of empathy, such as new pedagogical approaches to resilience and a role for the arts and humanities.

Original languageEnglish
JournalMedical Science Educator
Publication statusPublished - 15 Oct 2021


  • Communication
  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Medical education


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