This article investigates correlations between the levels of empathy and burnout among medical students. Occupational burnout has been a widely discussed subject both in professional and academic circles. This condition is characterized by three dimensions: emotional exhaustion (EE), depersonalization (DP), and reduced personal accomplishment (PA) (Bridgeman et al., 2018). Burnout is particularly often mentioned when the most psychologically demanding professions are discussed. Therefore, it is not surprising that health professionals and medical students often become the focus of burnout research. Studies found that from one-third to one-half of physicians suffer from such symptoms (Shanafelt et al., 2012). Previous researchers have described how burnout among medical students leads to higher dropout rates, suicidal ideation, lower performance, and ability to care (Dyrbye et al., 2008; Dyrbye et al., 2010; West et al., 2006). Thus, the chosen topic is a very serious issue worth investigating.
The researchers decided to evaluate how burnout correlates with two dimensions of empathy (Empathic Concern [EC] and Personal Distress [PD]). The former is associated with feelings of warmth and compassion experienced when encountering another person’s suffering, whereas the latter with anxiety and discomfort. The authors hypothesized, first, that burnout symptoms would worsen over time, and, second, that EC would help lower the extent of burnout while PD would increase it (von Harscher et al., 2018). The study’s subjects were volunteers from the Florida International University Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine (von Harscher et al., 2018). They were students from the five successive classes and were handed the questionnaires annually during the first three years of their education (n=353) (von Harscher et al., 2018). Among the subjects, there was a slight prevalence of males.
Researchers provided students with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to evaluate the burnout levels across dimensions. The Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Scale (IRI) was used to identify their empathy scores (von Harscher et al., 2018). To analyze the collected data, the authors employed several statistical tools. To compare the differences by school year, Non-Parametric Friedman Test was used (von Harscher et al., 2018). A Linear Mixed-Effect Model was employed to determine correlations between two dimensions of empathy and three burnout dimensions (von Harscher et al., 2018). Thus, the authors used the correlational method with no attempts to control any extraneous variables.
The overall results of the study indicate that the levels of empathy and burnout are interconnected. First of all, the burnout scores among the subjects were increasing across all three dimensions. The empathy levels were found to be consistent (von Harscher et al., 2018). Secondly, the results demonstrate that inherent empathy correlates with medical students’ levels of burnout. Moreover, there are differences in how two types of empathy influence burnout: EC is associated with lower burnout scores, whereas PD tends to lead to an increase in symptoms (von Harscher et al., 2018). Thus, the initial hypothesis was confirmed. The researchers suggest that students with low EC and high PD are at more risk and may need additional support (von Harscher et al., 2018). They propose to dedicate more studies to the possibility of altering the levels of EC and PD (von Harscher et al., 2018). At the end of the article, they also briefly discuss the limitations of their research.
The paper itself is rather straightforward and accessible. It has a simple structure with the specified hypothesis. The methods and the results are clearly described. The authors do not provide excessive details presenting information in a concise way. The researchers accomplished the goals of the study, as the results correlate with the hypothesis. The subject population is relatively representative as five successive classes were studied. However, to better understand the correlations between empathy and burnout, it is essential to involve medical students receiving training in different colleges across the country, as well as to study healthcare professionals.
The variables seem to be adequately measured, and the results are appropriately analyzed. They correlate with previous studies that have indicated an interrelationship between empathy and burnout (Nielsen & Tulinius, 2009; Wilkinson et al., 2017). Although some other factors could have influenced the results, the number of subjects suggests that the findings can be accurate. Thus, this article contributes to the research dedicated to studying burnout and empathy in healthcare professionals, in general, and medical students, in particular.
Such papers are important as they help to predict and minimize the negative consequence of burnout. While this study does not offer conclusive evidence, it provides enough valuable information to instigate further research. Although articles using the correlational method have their limitations, it might be beneficial if medical students from other educational settings completed questionnaires to determine their EC and PD levels with their burnout symptoms being later tracked. Particular attention should also be devoted to those who decide to cease education for psychological reasons. This can help to prepare mentorship and support programs for medical students. As the authors have mentioned, studies attempting to alter empathy levels can also be beneficial. Since I find interesting the problem of occupational burnout, I am planning to read more studies dedicated specifically to this topic. It might be stimulating to see if there are any quality papers that evaluate correlations between personality traits and burnout dimensions in other spheres.
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