Background: Enhancing empathy in healthcare education is a critical component in the development of a relationship between healthcare providers and patients that would ensure better patient care; improved patient satisfaction, adherence to treatment, patients’ medication self-efficacy, improved treatment outcomes, and reduced patient anxiety. Unfortunately, however, the decline of empathy among students has been frequently reported. It is especially common when the curriculum transitions to a clinical setting. However, some studies have questioned the significance and frequency of this decline. Thus, the purpose of this study was to determine the impact of postgraduate clinical training on dental trainees’ empathy from cognitive, behavioral, and patients’ perspective.
Methods: This study included 64 trainee dentists at Okayama University Hospital and 13 simulated patients (SPs). The trainee dentists carried out initial medical interviews with SPs twice, at the beginning and the end of their clinical training. The trainees completed the Japanese version of the Jefferson Scale of Empathy for health professionals just before each interview. The SPs evaluated the trainees’ communication using an assessment questionnaire immediately after the interviews. All interviews were videotaped and analyzed using the Roter Interaction Analysis System. The hypothesis was that empathy in the trainees would have reduced at the end of their clinical training. The results were compared between the beginning and the end. The data were analyzed utilizing paired t-test and the Wilcoxon signed-ranks test.
Results: No significant difference was found in the self-reported empathy of trainees at the beginning and the end of the clinical training (107.73 vs. 108.34, p=0.643). Similarly, there was no difference in the SPs’ evaluation of trainees’ communication (10.73 vs. 10.38, p=0.434). Communication behavior in the emotional responsiveness category for trainees in the beginning was significantly higher than that at the end (2.47 vs. 1.14, p=0.000).
Conclusions: Overall, a one-year postgraduate dental training program neither reduced nor increased trainee dentists’ empathy levels. Providing regular education support in this area may help trainees foster their empathy.