The Class That Teaches Doctors ‘Clinical Empathy’

Force credits “Oncotalk,” a course required of Duke’s oncology fellows, for the unexpected accolade. Developed by medical faculty at Duke, the University of Pittsburgh, and several other medical schools, “Oncotalk” is part of a burgeoning effort to teach doctors an essential but often overlooked skill: clinical empathy. Unlike sympathy, which is defined as feeling sorry for another person, clinical empathy is the ability to stand in a patient’s shoes and to convey an understanding of the patient’s situation as well as the desire to help.

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While empathy courses are rarely required in medical training, interest in them is growing, experts say, and programs are underway at Jefferson Medical College and at Columbia University School of Medicine. Columbia has pioneered a program in narrative medicine, which emphasizes the importance of understanding patients’ life stories in providing compassionate care.

While the curricula differ, most focus on self-monitoring by doctors to reduce defensiveness, improve listening skills (one study found that, on average, doctors interrupt patients within 18 seconds), and decode facial expressions and body language. Some programs use actors as simulated patients and provide feedback to individual doctors.

Sandra G. Boodman writing in The Atlantic about the importance of empathy to the craft of medicine.

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