Can We Really Teach and Learn Empathy?

The short answer with Dr. Leonard Calabrese

By Leonard Calabrese, DO

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Empathy is a cognitive quality as much as it is an affective trait, and there are good data to suggest that we can teach, build and buffer empathy by a variety of creative activities and learning techniques. We often say a good start is merely focusing on empathy by teaching good listening and advanced communication techniques to both recognize non-verbal clues as well as communicate our feelings back to the patient.

More basic and fundamental to our natural tendencies for empathy are techniques which sensitize us to plight of our patients: reflective practices such as narrative writing, reading fiction and watching films which address these aspects of the human condition. Other techniques that have yielded provocative results help us share in our patients’ suffering. For example, obstetrics residents wearing a 16 pound bowling ball to simulate pregnancy, or high-tech devices which produce tremors to mimic movement disorders.

Finally, and most interestingly, training in techniques of mindfulness that emphasize and orient the practice to compassion and kindness also have been demonstrated as effective. It has been claimed that those who practice mindfulness techniques themselves are self-aware and capable of dealing with their own stressors and are best capable of bring inexhaustible empathy to the patient care arena.

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More work is needed, but this is an exciting area.

Dr. Calabrese is Director of the R.J. Fasenmyer Center for Clinical Immunology and teaches empathy in the Art and Practice of Medicine to third-year students at Cleveland Clinic Lerner College of Medicine. Dr. Calabrese is a collaborator in the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine’s Project in Osteopathic Medical Education and Empathy (POMEE), a groundbreaking, nationwide, multi-institutional study in medical education in collaboration with the American Osteopathic Association, Cleveland Clinic and Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Jefferson.