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Beyond Burnout: Prioritizing Empathy in a Time of Crisis

AACOM sponsors first-of-its-kind empathy study amid unprecedented doctor/medical student burnout levels


(Bethesda, MD) – Even before the United States confirmed its first COVID-19 case, burnout in the medical profession was a growing concern. To help combat this scourge, the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) co-sponsored a first of its kind study aimed at better understanding the early signs and impacts of burnout. Initial results of the study have shown that those with higher empathy are less likely to experience burnout. As the pandemic continues to surge across the country and we brace for flu season, all medical professions are under tremendous stress, making this issue more pressing and severe.

The award-winning Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy (POMEE) is the first nationwide medical education empathy study. Data from Phase I of the project has been used to create a national norm table of empathy scores in osteopathic medical students. Data from Phase II, expected to conclude in fall 2023, will help educators understand student characteristics and curricular models that can effect positive change on empathy retention during medical school.

“Our medical education and healthcare systems are facing truly unprecedented challenges,” said Robert A. Cain, DO, FACOI, FAODME, President and CEO of AACOM. “Physicians across the country are responding to the immediate mortality and morbidity of COVID-19 patients. In the days and months ahead, doctors will also need to address non-COVID health concerns for those who have delayed treatment and care, along with what is expected to be a very serious mental health crisis, which has already claimed the lives of heroic first responders. While the causes of burnout will require multiple solutions to comprehensively address, the outcomes of POMEE have the potential to contribute to a more empathic medical student body and physician workforce, to the benefit of patient health and physician resiliency.”

Empathy Positively Correlated with Medical School Success and Healthier Patients

More empathic medical students are rated as more clinically competent by faculty and patients, and more empathic physicians have achieved more tangibly positive clinical outcomes when treating diabetes and prostate cancer.

Because of the statistically significant link between empathy and medical student performance and patient health, POMEE’s principal investigator, Mohammadreza Hojat, PhD, research professor in Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, and director of the Jefferson Longitudinal Study at the Asano-Gonnella Center for Research in Medical Education and Health Care, argues that medical schools should consider, along with academic qualifications, an applicant’s empathy level when evaluating a candidate and making admissions decisions.

“In our recent analysis of data collected in Phase II of the POMEE, being prepared for publication, we found that in our national sample of first-year matriculants of the US colleges of osteopathic medicine (in the academic year 2019 – 2020), high scorers on the Jefferson Scale of Empathy reported significantly less burnout experiences. As we measure and observe the growing threat burnout is posing to health professionals, it is especially important for medical schools to adopt admissions policies that contribute to a more empathic medical student body,” said Dr. Hojat. “We have a social and ethical responsibility to choose qualified applicants who have the potential to become caring physicians.”

POMEE is gathering empathy data at a particularly interesting moment, when stressors are off the charts. Knowing that empathy reduces the risk of burnout, improving our understanding of how to retain and foster empathy among medical students can help us better protect their mental health.

POMEE is sponsored by AACOM in collaboration with the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University and Leonard Calabrese, DO, Cleveland Clinic’s R.J. Fasenmeyer Chair of Clinical Immunology and Theodore F. Classen, DO, Chair in Osteopathic Research and Education. For more information about POMEE, visit aacom.org/empathy.


The American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine (AACOM) leads and advocates for the full continuum of osteopathic medical education to improve the health of the public. Founded in 1898 to support and assist the nation's osteopathic medical schools, AACOM represents all 37 accredited colleges of osteopathic medicine—educating nearly 31,000 future physicians, 25 percent of all US medical students—at 58 teaching locations in 33 US states, as well as osteopathic graduate medical education professionals and trainees at US medical centers, hospitals, clinics, and health systems.

AACOM provides leadership for the osteopathic medical education community by promoting excellence in medical education, research, and service, and by fostering innovation and quality across the continuum of osteopathic medical education to improve the health of the American public.


Joseph Shapiro
Director of Media Relations
(240) 938-0746

Christine DeCarlo
Media and Public Affairs Manager
(202) 603-1026