The Link between Personality and Empathy in Medical Students

A recent study from the University of Minho in Portugal published in Medical Teacher1 examined associations between personality dimensions and empathy scores in medical students. The Portuguese version of NEO-FFI (a self-completed personality inventory) was administered in order to characterize participants in terms of five personality traits: Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Openness to Experience, and Conscientiousness. Self-reported empathy measures were obtained with the Portuguese version of the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE-spv), a Likert-type questionnaire specifically developed for administration in health sciences settings that measures domains, such as compassionate care and perspective taking. The results confirmed positive associations between agreeableness, openness to experience and empathy, and did not support the hypothesis of negative associations between neuroticism and empathy. It is suggested that the personality of students should be taken into account in programs to enhance empathy in undergraduate medical education.

This raises some interesting questions. Should personality factors be taken into account when selecting medical students (in order to pick those who score positively for the traits associated with empathy)? How much are these factors changeable as a result of the learning environment and experiences of the students as they progress through undergraduate and postgraduate training? (Many studies have shown that student empathy declines through training, but perhaps the ‘right’ personalities might be resistant to this?) These are potentially fruitful areas for future study, but one thing is clear – we all have a responsibility to maintain empathy and compassion as medical practitioners and teachers, whatever our natural personality traits. It is known that consistent display of these characteristics by doctors enhances patient healing and improves health outcomes.

It is also known that positive role models help students maintain empathy and compassion. So as teachers, who is our role model for compassion and empathy? Who is an example that will help us to consistently show these things? One of PRIME’s aims is to encourage health professionals to look at Jesus as described in the Gospel stories as the best role-model of physician and teacher that we could ever have. No doubt He would have scored highly on the NEO-FFI for agreeableness, openness to experience, and conscientiousness, and on the JSPE-spv compassionate care and perspective taking. Reading through the Gospel accounts reveals lots of examples of Jesus exhibiting these characteristics, despite persistent pressure and stress.

So whatever our own natural personality traits, to help ourselves and our students to consistently display empathy and compassion, let us be inspired and encouraged by the example of Jesus, recognised by people of all faiths and of none as the Great Physician.

Dr Huw Morgan

Senior PRIME tutor

  1. Magalhaes E, Costa P, Joao Costa M. Empathy of medical students and personality: Evidence from the Five-Factor Model. Medical Teacher; October 8, 2012
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