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Educational Research Report: Changes in Student's Levels of Empathy during the Didactic Portion of a Veterinary Program

Abstract: Empathy can be defined as the ability to understand and connect with the emotional state and frame of mind of another. Establishing connections with others is a crucial skill for veterinarians who must earn the trust and compliance of their clients to provide quality care for their patients. This is a longitudinal study using the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) to assess changes in veterinary students’ self-reported empathy as they progressed through the didactic portion of the DVM program at Colorado State University. The IRI consists of four subscales that measure cognitive and affective components of empathy: Perspective Taking, Fantasy, Emphatic Concern, and Personal Distress. Data were collected at three time points, corresponding to the start of the first year, the fourth semester (second year), and the fifth semester (third year). Results showed an overall decline in Perspective Taking scores, with a significant decrease between first and second year. There was an overall increase in students’ levels of Personal Distress as they progressed through the program. The significant difference was found between years 1 and 3. This is especially concerning because the enhanced unease in interpersonal interactions coincides with students entering clinical rotations in the third year—the very time when these traits are necessary for quality client and patient care. Veterinary educators are urged to use this information as a basis for investigating novel curricular and programmatic interventions to counteract these changes in student empathy.

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