Physician empathy is a complex phenomenon known to improve illness outcomes; however, few tools are available for deliberate practice of empathy. We used a virtual patient (VP) to teach empathic communication to first-year medical students. We then evaluated students’ verbal empathy in a standardized patient (SP) interaction.Methods
Seventy medical students, randomly assigned to 3 separate study groups, interacted with (1) a control VP portraying depression, (2) a VP with a backstory simulating patient shadowing, or (3) a VP able to give immediate feedback about empathic communication (empathy-feedback VP). Subsequently, the students interviewed an SP portraying a scenario that included opportunities to express empathy. All SP interviews were recorded and transcribed. The study outcomes were (1) the students’ verbal response to the empathic opportunities presented by the SP, as coded by reliable assessors using the Empathic Communication Coding System, and (2) the students’ responses as coded by the SPs, using a communication checklist.Results
There were no significant differences in student demographics between groups. The students who interacted with the empathy-feedback VP showed higher empathy in the SP interview than did the students in the backstory VP and the control VP groups [mean (SD) empathy scores coded on a 0–6 scale were 2.91 (0.16) vs. 2.20 (0.22) and 2.27 (0.21), respectively). The difference in scores was significant only for the empathy-feedback VP versus the backstory VP group (P = 0.027). The SPs rated the empathy-feedback and the backstory VP groups significantly higher than the control VP group on offering empathic statements (P < 0.0001), appearing warm and caring (P = 0.015), and forming rapport (P = 0.004).Conclusions
Feedback on empathy in a VP interaction increased students’ empathy in encounters with SPs, as rated by trained assessors, whereas a simulation of patient shadowing did not. Both VP interventions increased students’ empathy as rated by SPs, compared with the control VP group.