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Teaching empathy to undergraduate medical students: Translation to practice

Bee Teng Lim, Helen Moriarty, Mark Huthwaite, Peter Gallagher, Roshan Perera


Introduction: Clinical empathy is the cornerstone of a good patient–clinician relationship. This study aims to examine the impact of an empathy teaching innovation (ETI) on empathic communication in medical students, which was introduced in a new medical curriculum and incorporates clinical skills and patient contacts from students’ first-year study.

Method: A cluster randomised controlled trial (RCT) collected data on medical students’ self-reported empathy using the Jefferson Scale of Physician Empathy (JSPE), simulated patients’ ratings of each student using the Jefferson Scale of Patient Perception of Physician Empathy (JSPPPE) and students’ performance in an objective structured clinical examination (OSCE). Half of the medical students (n = 39) received the ETI and the other half (n = 40) acted as the control group. The ETI is a 1-hour actor-led empathy workshop focusing on “being-in-role” and how to “walk a mile in the patient’s shoes”, previously shown to improve medical students’ empathy scores.

Results: The medical students who received the ETI were rated as more empathetic by the simulated patients, with statistically significant correlations between patients’ perception of empathy and the consultation performance for the intervention group, but not for the control group. However, the ETI did not significantly enhance student self-reported empathy.

Conclusions: This study presents the ETI as a short intervention tool for improving medical students’ portrayal of clinical empathy, as perceived by simulated patients. Findings raise interesting questions for medical educationalists regarding the use of simulated (or actual) patients’ reports on empathy. 

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