A Longitudinal Study of Empathy Among Students at Two Dpt Programs in Boston
Purpose/Hypothesis: The purpose of this investigation was to assess the cognitive attribute of self-reported empathy of students in all years of physical therapy education at two Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) programs which utilize different curricular models; one uses the problem-based learning pedagogy while the other program uses a more traditional didactic teaching method. Building on a previous cross-sectional analysis, this study utilized a longitudinal design to examine self-reported empathy in DPT students at the same two institutions over the course of three years. Number of Subjects: All students of each program were invited to participate. Three hundred and four (n = 304) students participated in the cross-sectional study representing three cohorts of students. Statistical analyses were performed for the entire cohort (n= 506) in addition to matched analyses for participants who participated at all three evaluation times (n = 75). Materials and Methods: Empathy levels were measured using The Jefferson Scale of Empathy-Health Professions Student Version (JSE-HPS). A short demographic survey was included to examine potential confounding factors of gender, age, year of program, and school of attendance. Statistical analyses were performed to evaluate for differences in empathy levels across cohorts between the two institutions. The JSE-HPS was also used in the longitudinal study in which students were surveyed at the beginning of the first, second and third year of study to evaluate change in self-reported levels of empathy. Paired T-tests were used to compare cohorts over time. Results: No significant difference in levels of empathy were found when comparing cohorts of students from two pedagogically different DPT programs. Overall levels of empathy in these physical therapy students were in the moderate to high range on the JSE-HPS compared to reported results in other health profession students. There was a greater level of empathy in females when compared to males (p<0.05) as well as third-year students when compared to first-year students in both programs (p<0.05). The longitudinal data supported findings from the cross-sectional study. The results showed an increase in self-reported levels of empathy across time for each cohort and for matched individual analysis (p< .05). Conclusions: Existing evidence in medical and other health professional student education has shown a reoccurring pattern of empathy declining during the course of study. Overall there is also evidence to suggest that empathy levels in our society and specifically in college students has been on a downward trend over the last several years. Given data to support the importance of empathy with improved patient outcomes and patient satisfaction, endeavors to understand, document and determine if these patterns hold true for DPT students’ empathy levels is important. Clinical Relevance: Our data suggest that DPT students may differ from the trends found in other healthcare domains, and therefore instead of interventions to improve student empathy, time may be better spent on educating students on strategies to maintain, protect, and utilize their current levels of empathy. Future study is warranted with a probability sample to improve generalizability of the results.