Background There is evidence that empathy decreases as medical students go through clinical training. However, there are few in-depth studies investigating the students’ own experiences when trying to empathize in concrete clinical encounters. We therefore wanted to explore medical students’ perceptions, experiences, and reflections when empathizing with patients expressing emotional issues. Methods A qualitative content analysis of semi-structured interviews with third year medical students (N = 11) was conducted using video-stimulated recall from their own medical interview with a simulated chronically ill patient. Students were led to believe that the patient was real. Results Five themes which may influence student empathy during history-taking were identified through analysis of interview data: (1) Giving priority to medical history taking, (2) Interpreting the patient’s worry as lack of medical information, (3) Conflict between perspectives, (4) Technical communication skill rather than authentic and heart-felt and (5) The distant professional role. Conclusions The participating students described conflicts between a medical agenda, rules and norms for professional conduct and the students’ own judgments when trying to empathize with the patient. To our knowledge, this is the first study ever to document the students’ own perspective in concrete situations as well as how these reported experiences and reflections affect their empathy towards patients. Since we now know more about what is likely to hinder medical students’ empathy, educators should actively encourage group reflection and discussion in order to avoid these negative effects of history taking both inside and outside of the clinical setting.
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