Background: Professional empathy has been associated with a range of positive patient- and clinician outcomes and is therefore considered important to develop for future physicians. Measuring changes in empathy scores among medical students by using the Jefferson Scale of Empathy (Student version) (JSE-S) has led to mixed results. So far, no investigation of Danish medical students’ empathy development has been conducted. The aim of this study was therefore to examine the associations between empathy scores among Danish medical students and university, year of curriculum, age, sex, co-habitation, and parental status, specialty preferences and motivations for choosing the medical education.
Methods: This was a cross-sectional questionnaire study. All medical students in Denmark in their first, third and sixth year (N=4,178) were invited to participate in the study in October 2020. The associations between JSE-S sum score and the above explanatory factors were analysed by uni- and multivariable linear regression models.
Results: The JSE-S was completed by 672 medical students. The overall mean score was 112.7. There were no statistically significant differences in empathy between universities, first, third- and sixth- year medical students, age groups or parental status. Female students and students living with a spouse or partner scored higher on JSE-S than male students or students living alone, and the sex difference remained statistically significant in the multivariable regression. In both the univariable and multivariable setting, preference for future medical specialty was statistically significant, with a decrease in scores for students choosing surgery-specialties. Motivational factors were not statistically significantly associated with empathy, although there was a slight upwards trend for one of the motivational categories, named “personal experiences”.
Conclusions: Overall, our results, showing rather stable empathy scores across years of curriculum of medical students in Denmark, add to the mixed picture of empathy development among medical students. Our findings are consistent with positive associations found in international studies between empathy scores and higher age, female sex, human-oriented specialty preferences and altruistic motivations for choosing to enroll. Although specialty preferences are changing during a medical education, they may be used meaningfully as predictors of individual student empathy levels.