Battling the 'Devil in the Third Year': The Fight to Foster Empathy in Medical Trainees

Ryan Syrek, MA


July 29, 2019

What's Next for Empathy Intervention?

Empathy training requires a thoughtful, coordinated approach. As Speicher explains, "You can't spend an afternoon role-playing and expect a meaningful change in empathy in your student. Schools have to make time for this in the curriculum." Making room for empathy means finding a balance. "All of us want our physicians to be able to understand how we feel and be able to put themselves in our shoes when we come to them at some of the most difficult times for medical care. But we also want them to have all of the medical knowledge they need to take care of us, no matter what's wrong with us. That's the balance that our schools try to make."

Other than Kangovi's innovative and immersive approach, numerous interventions have been initiated across the country, including reflection on art, literature, and theater. Chisolm is involved in one such approach. "I participated in the inaugural cohort of the Harvard Macy Institute Art Museum-Based Health Professions Education Fellowship. We learned how to use the art museum to teach all kinds of health profession educators a variety of skills, including obvious skills of observation, but also skills of critical thinking, perspective-taking, empathy, communication skills, self-care skills... The list goes on."

She is one of many who see the potential of arts and humanities to help enhance and increase empathy. "Science doesn't teach us how to live. The arts and humanities teach us how to live." Wellberry agrees. "I am a very strong proponent of arts in medicine. These are the kinds of things that one might use to improve empathy, but at the same time, to improve one's own sense of well-being. These arts activities are social; they relieve you of self-preoccupation."

Strategies to boost empathy need not necessarily be expansive. Chisolm imagines, "If I could wave a magic wand, I would have every course and every lecture integrate the caring side of dealing with whatever is being presented to students. If you can't do that for a topic like the Krebs cycle, for example, maybe it shouldn't take up the precious learning time of students anymore."

In attempting to identify pioneering new strategies, the simplest ones shouldn't be overlooked. As Casas explains, "The most important way for us to teach about empathy is to model it ourselves in our clinical practice with our patients and in our interactions. I think the most important way that students learn is through mentorship and through seeing how we interact and treat our patients."

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