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Heritage College researchers, students participate in study of osteopathic student empathy  

(ATHENS, Ohio—Dec. 19, 2013) Researchers from the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine were part of a multi-site, collaborative team that found significant empathy levels among osteopathic students during their third and fourth years of medical school.

Results of the study, which used Heritage College students as subjects, are featured in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. Leonard H. Calabrese, D.O., vice chair of rheumatic and immunologic diseases at the Cleveland Clinic, led the research team.

The study assessed empathy levels of osteopathic medical students and compared them to published accounts of allopathic medical student empathy. Osteopathic students showed consistently high empathy scores in years three and four, while allopathic students demonstrated a significant decrease in empathy during those years.

Previous research in this area indicates that empathy levels tend to erode during the third and fourth years of medical education, but most studies have focused on allopathic medical students; few have examined the phenomenon considering osteopathic medical students specifically.

“Year three marks the first year that students train in the clinic rather than the classroom,” said Joseph Bianco, Ph.D., assistant professor of social medicine at the Heritage College and a member of the research team. “It is precisely in year three that you would want your doctors-in-training to retain and cultivate empathy.”

“We suspect that there may be differences in osteopathic education—perhaps subtle—that may buffer students from empathy erosion,” Dr. Bianco said. “Our study is significant because it suggests that osteopathic students may maintain their empathy levels throughout years three and four.”

While the findings are significant, Dr. Bianco said more research is needed to identify the factors in osteopathic education that may explain this phenomenon. “In our published study, we measured empathy in years one through four all at once. In our current longitudinal study, we are tracking the same students from year to year. This way, we can see how individuals change over time, in which direction their empathy changes and when those changes happen throughout the curriculum.”

The JAOA article, titled “Correlates and Changes in Empathy and Attitudes toward Interprofessional Collaboration in Osteopathic Medical Students,” marks the first published results by the research team.

“While we are closer to the beginning than the end in the study of empathy in medical practice, our data are provocative and suggest something about osteopathic training at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine, and possibly osteopathic training in general, is buffering our students from losing the ‘care’ in caring for patients,” Dr. Calabrese said.

Other researchers involved with the project include Doug Mann, Ph.D., former assistant professor of social medicine at the Heritage College; Jack A. Brose, D.O., vice provost of health affairs at Ohio University; David Massello, vice president and operations director at the Foundation for Osteopathic Research and Continuous Education; and Mohamadrezza Hojat, Ph.D., research professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Jefferson Medical College.       

The research team first came together in 2010, when Dr. Mann and Dr. Brose joined with Dr. Calabrese and Dr. Mohamadrezza out of mutual interest in osteopathic medical student empathy. The research was funded by the American Osteopathic Association Council on Research and the Osteopathic Heritage Foundations.

To read the complete JAOA article, go to

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