The Emerging Issue of Digital Empathy

Christopher Terry, PharmD; Jeff Cain, EdD, MS


Am J Pharm Educ. 2016;80(4):58 

In This Article

Teaching Digital Empathy

Similar to e-professionalism and electronic health records, the concept of digital empathy is another aspect of a technologically evolving environment that should be addressed within health professions curricula. Because of the growth of computer-mediated communication, the need to make future health care providers aware of digital empathy and teach them how to recognize and avoid harmful online communications is unlikely to recede. From an educational standpoint, one needs to look first at empathy training in general to determine how health professions education might approach issues pertaining to digital empathy. Unfortunately, research by Ahrweiler et al indicated that medical education in general does not promote the development of empathy.[18] Unlike other skills and knowledge-based content, teaching skills from the affective domain is not straightforward and may require creative and focused educational methods.

Although the construct of empathy is multidimensional in nature and difficult to measure, there are effective strategies for teaching empathy that focus specifically on communication skills training,[19] a concept that aligns with other digital communication training. Communication skills training in the form of traditional lectures and small group workshops increases empathy scores for students in all phases of training.[19] If sharpening students' communication skills leads to an increase in traditional empathy, it may also be an excellent way to address digital empathy.

Self-reflection and reflective writing are also useful methods for addressing empathy in medical education curricula[19] and in developing empathy.[18] In their systematic literature review, Chen and Forbes noted that significant change in student empathy occurred in 100% of the studies in which reflective writing activities were incorporated.[20] The authors suggested the process of reflective writing should be considered in any curricula, as this approach was successful at developing empathy.[18] Self-reflection activities have been successfully introduced into curricula through a variety of formats, including group peer discussions[21] and mindfulness training.[22]

Because the underlying principles of traditional and digital empathy constructs are the same, both communications training and self-reflection activities could theoretically prompt learners to question and examine their interactions in the online world. This self-examination process may potentially develop heightened online awareness and promote increased digital empathy. A targeted awareness that digital communication is powerful and can often have unintended effects on others is an important element of developing digital empathy. Raising awareness of the importance of digital empathy is the first step in appropriately educating trainees and adequately preparing them for the future of health care in an ever-changing technological world.

Raising awareness alone may not address all issues, however. Several questions still remain, such as whether empathy training specifically addresses the subconscious effects of online disinhibition. These subconscious effects are instrumental and potentially the primary reasons why a general lack of digital empathy is exhibited throughout society as a whole. It is unknown whether traditional empathy training merely applied to digital communications is sufficient. Another question is whether an awareness or understanding of one's online disinhibition is enough to prevent it from occurring or if other psychological interventions are necessary. Moreover, should empathy education incorporate instruction to address the process of online disinhibition? Research is needed to answer these questions. As educators, we should be designing and testing educational models that will increase digital empathy skills of the next generation of health care providers.