How Do Physicians Teach Empathy in the Primary Care Setting?


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Abstract

To explore how primary care clinician—teachers actually attempt to convey empathy to medical students and residents, the author carried out a qualitative study in 1999-2000 in which 12 primary care physicians reflected on their views of empathy, how they demonstrated empathy to patients, and how they went about teaching empathy to learners. Interview data were triangulated with observations of actual teaching sessions and informal questioning of students and residents who had been taught by the faculty participants. Grounded theory was used to interpret the data.The faculty had clear conceptualizations of what empathy meant in clinical practice, but differed as to whether it was primarily a measurable, behavioral skill or a global attitude. Respondents stressed the centrality of role modeling in teaching, and most used debriefing strategies, as well as both learner- and patient-centered approaches, in instructing learners about empathy. Findings suggest that limiting the teaching of empathy to a skill-based approach does not reflect the richness of what actually occurs in the clinical setting, and that it is important to teach empathy comprehensively, acknowledging both behavioral and attitudinal tools.

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