Neuroscience and Conflict Resolution Blog by Stephanie West Allen
Brief training program improves resident physicians’ empathy with patients
Resident physicians’ participation in a brief training program designed to increase empathy with their patients produced significant improvement in how patients perceived their interactions with the residents. This contrasts with several studies showing that empathy with patients usually drops during medical school and residency training. The report from a team of Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) researchers will appear in the Journal of General Internal Medicine and has been released online.
"The most exciting message from this study is that empathy can be taught and, most importantly, that improved empathy can be perceived by our patients. Many medical educators have thought that you are either born with this trait or you aren’t," says Helen Riess, MD, of the MGH Department of Psychiatry, who led the study. "We are also very happy to see that participating residents liked the training and found it interesting and helpful."
Several studies have found that medical training is often accompanied by a drop in empathy – the ability to understand and respond to another person’s feelings – and some have pinpointed the third year of medical school, when students first become involved in patient care, as the most vulnerable period. Riess notes that possible contributors to the decline in empathy among medical trainees include self-protection against their own emotional distress and a desensitization that results from performing many potentially painful procedures. A lack of overt empathic behavior among senior residents and other role models, along with the escalating demands of training on residents’ time and energy, could be additional contributors.
Recent studies have revealed the neurobiological basis of empathy– for example, showing how areas of the brain involved in the perception of pain can be activated simply by watching a loved one experience
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