BACKGROUND: Empathy is frequently cited as an important attribute in physicians and some groups have expressed a desire to measure empathy either at selection for medical school or during medical (or postgraduate) training. In order to do this, a reliable and valid test of empathy is required. The purpose of this systematic review is to determine the reliability and validity of existing tests for the assessment of medical empathy. METHODS: A systematic review of research papers relating to the reliability and validity of tests of empathy in medical students and doctors. Journal databases (Medline, EMBASE, and PsycINFO) were searched for English-language articles relating to the assessment of empathy and related constructs in applicants to medical school, medical students, and doctors. RESULTS: From 1147 citations, we identified 50 relevant papers describing 36 different instruments of empathy measurement. As some papers assessed more than one instrument, there were 59 instrument assessments. 20 of these involved only medical students, 30 involved only practising clinicians, and three involved only medical school applicants. Four assessments involved both medical students and practising clinicians, and two studies involved both medical school applicants and students. Eight instruments demonstrated evidence of reliability, internal consistency, and validity. Of these, six were self-rated measures, one was a patient-rated measure, and one was an observer-rated measure. CONCLUSION: A number of empathy measures available have been psychometrically assessed for research use among medical students and practising medical doctors. No empathy measures were found with sufficient evidence of predictive validity for use as selection measures for medical school. However, measures with a sufficient evidential base to support their use as tools for investigating the role of empathy in medical training and clinical care are available.