Empathy in Medical Students Is Moderated by Openness to Spirituality
THEORY: Empathy is one component of medical student education that may be important to nurture, but there are many potential psychological barriers to empathy, such as student depression, burnout, and low quality of life or wellness behaviors. However, few studies have addressed how positive behaviors such as wellness and spirituality, in combination with these barriers, might affect empathy. HYPOTHESES:We hypothesized a negative relationship between psychological distress and empathy, and a positive relationship between empathy and wellness behaviors. We also hypothesized that openness to others’ spirituality would moderate the effects of psychological distress on empathy in medical students. METHOD: This cross-sectional study included 106 medical students in a public medical school in the U.S. Midwest. Mailed questionnaires collected student information on specialty choice and sociodemographics, empathy, spirituality openness, religiosity, wellness, burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress. Hierarchical multiple regression analysis was conducted, with empathy as the dependent variable, psychological distress and all wellness behaviors as predictors, and spirituality openness as a moderator. RESULTS: Specialty choice, burnout, wellness behaviors, spirituality openness, and religiosity were significant independent predictors of empathy. In addition, when added singly, one interaction was significant: Spirituality Openness × Depression. Spirituality openness was related to empathy only in nondepressed students. Empathy of students with higher levels of depression was generally lower and not affected by spirituality openness CONCLUSIONS: Nondepressed students who reported lower openness to spirituality might benefit most from empathy training, because these students reported the lowest empathy. Highly depressed or disengaged students may require interventions before empathy can be addressed. In addition, burnout was related to lower levels of empathy and wellness was related to higher levels. These provide potential points of intervention for medical schools developing tools to increase medical trainees’ empathy levels.
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