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Hollywood Films Increase Medical Students' Empathy Toward Patients; Greater Empathy Linked to Better Patient Health


(PHILADELPHIA) -- Medical students can be taught to be more empathetic toward patients by viewing and discussing scenes from movies that illuminate the patient's perspective, according to a new study, "Enhancing and sustaining empathy in medical students," published in the December, 2013 issue of Medical Teacher. This study adds to the body of work demonstrating that empathy can be instilled in people and is not fixed. The study was led by Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, a research professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Thomas Jefferson University.

According to Dr. Hojat, "A student's empathy erodes during medical school, but we've discovered a link between physician empathy and better patient outcomes—and we found that showing medical students these scenes from movies helped build and maintain their empathy. Greater empathy will mean better health for patients down the line. We are proving that empathy is a quality that can be taught."

Physician empathy is an increasing point of interest for those, including administrators of the new Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (A.C.A.), who seek to improve patient outcomes through more effective and less costly interventions.

Two previous groundbreaking Jefferson studies by Dr. Hojat and his colleagues showed that higher physician empathy could predict better health outcomes for diabetes patients ("The relationship between physician empathy and disease complications: an empirical study of primary care physicians and their diabetic patients in Parma, Italy"). Several studies, including Jefferson's, have shown that empathy in patient care tends to decrease during medical school ("The devil is in the third year: a longitudinal study of erosion of empathy in medical school."), which reinforces the urgent need for implementation of programs in academic medical centers to enhance empathy in the future generation of physicians.

There were two phases in the current study. Research participants included 248 second-year students at Jefferson Medical College (51 percent women, n=126); representing 94 percent of the total class (n=264), divided into experimental and control groups.

In Phase I, students in the experimental group watched and discussed clips of patient encounters from motion pictures such as The Doctor; Wit; and First, Do No Harm. The scenes were chosen to enhance empathic understanding toward patients and their families. Students in the control group watched an unrelated documentary.

Phase II took place ten weeks later; students in the experimental group who had seen the film clips were divided into two groups. One group attended a lecture on the importance of empathy in patient care; the other group watched a documentary about racism. The Jefferson Scale of Empathy (J.S.E.), an internationally recognized and validated measure of empathy, was administered before and after the experiments.

In Phase I, empathy scores improved significantly in the experimental group; no changes were observed in the control group. In Phase II, the mean scores were sustained in the half of the experimental group that attended a reinforcing lecture on the importance of empathy, but not in the other half of experimental group or the control group that watched a video on racism. In short, medical students who viewed the film scenes and received a lecture on empathy 10 weeks later improved and more importantly sustained the improvement of their empathy scores.

For more information contact Katie Krauss, (215) 955-5507,