Objectives This study aimed to examine concepts of altruism and empathy among medical students and professionals in conjunction with health care initiatives designed to support the maintenance of these qualities. Methods We searched for the terms 'altruism', 'altruistic', 'helping', 'prosocial behaviour' and 'empathy' in the English-language literature published from 1980 to the present within the Ovid MEDLINE, PsycInfo and PubMed databases. We used conceptual analysis to examine the relationships among altruism, empathy and related prosocial concepts in health care in order to understand how such factors may relate to emotional and career burnout, cynicism, decreased helping and decreased patient-centredness in care. Results Altruistic ideals and qualities of empathy appear to decrease among some medical students as they progress through their education. During this process, students face increasingly heavy workloads, deal with strenuous demands and become more acquainted with non-humanistic informal practices inherent in the culture of medicine. In combination, these factors increase the likelihood that emotional suppression, detachment from patients, burnout and other negative consequences may result, perhaps as a means of self-preservation. Alternatively, by making a mindful and intentional choice to endeavour for self-care and a healthy work-life balance, medical students can uphold humanistic and prosocial attitudes and behaviours. Conclusions Promoting altruism in the context of a compensated health care career is contradictory and misguided. Instead, an approach to clinical care that is prosocial and empathic is recommended. Training in mindfulness, self-reflection and emotion skills may help medical students and professionals to recognise, regulate and behaviourally demonstrate empathy within clinical and professional encounters. However, health care initiatives to increase empathy and other humanistic qualities will be limited unless more practical and feasible emotion skills training is offered to and accepted by medical students. Success will be further moderated by the culture of medicine's full acceptance of empathy and humanism into its customs, beliefs, values, interactions and daily practices.
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