Teaching Medical Students to Communicate With Empathy and Clarity Using Improvisation

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Medical educators widely accept that health care providers need strong communication skills. The authors sought to develop a course incorporating improvisation to teach health professions students communication skills and build empathy.


Teaching health care professionals to communicate more effectively with patients, the public, and each other is a goal of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. The authors designed an interprofessional elective for medical, nursing, and dental students that differed in several respects from traditional communication training. The Communicating Science elective, which was offered by the Alda Center from 2012 to 2016, used verbal and nonverbal exercises, role-playing, and storytelling, including improvisation exercises, to teach students to communicate with empathy and clarity.


In course evaluations completed by 76 students in 2012 and 2013, 100% said they would recommend the course to fellow students, saw the relevance of the course content to their careers, and desired more of the course content in their school’s curriculum. As a result of this positive feedback, from 2014 to 2016, 10 hours of instruction pairing empathy and communication training was embedded in the preclinical curriculum at the Stony Brook University School of Medicine.

Next Steps

This course could be an effective model, and one that other institutions could employ, for improving communication skills and empathy in the next generation of health care professionals. Next steps include advocating for communication skills training to be embedded throughout the curriculum of a four-year medical school program.

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