Teaching Empathy in Medical Education

In addition to physical exam skills, we believe instruction on empathy is an essential aspect of physician training. However, as discussed in the bedside medicine community, it’s often overlooked in medical school curriculum. Recent essays published in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and Journal of Patient Experience cite evidence that reinforces the importance of cultivating this competency among learners and offers strategies for doing so.

“Medical humanities are often on the fringes of medical education but should be central to medicine culture change,” says University of Edinburgh’s David Jeffrey. He explains that poetry and literature courses, such as reading Shakespeare, can facilitate a student’s ability to understand and share a patient’s feelings. His essay, Shakespeare’s empathy: enhancing connection in the patient–doctor relationship in times of crisis, explores the playwright’s use of “other-orientated perspective,” (in this case, sensitivity to psychological and social concerns and emotional expression) and its ability to help trainees reflect on patient interactions and apply empathy in clinical practice.

Danielle Benedict Sacdalan of the University of the Philippines echoes this sentiment in Empathy. Sacdalan expresses concern because data suggests that “empathy declines during medical training,” an outcome likely due to physician burnout and self-preservation. But, he explains, evidence shows humans can learn empathy and master it as a competency firmly rooted in the brain. He calls for medical education that equips learners to demonstrate compassion and deliver comfort, an aspect of care that, like Sacdalan, we recognize as essential to every clinical encounter.

We are encouraged to see these two thoughtful approaches to nurturing empathy in today’s medical students and eager to see the impact on patient care at the bedside!

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