Empathy is the ability to identify another person’s feelings and to view the world from their perspective. Self-assessed empathy declines throughout medical school and residency training. Technology plays an increasing role in today’s medical education system, which requires delivery of curriculum and assessment of knowledge and skills in standardized manner at geographically distant campuses. Our project assessed whether students communicate empathy in interactions with technology-based teaching tools. We explored student interactions with virtual-patient scenarios and asked the following questions: 1) Do medical students respond empathically to virtual-patients portraying mental healthscenarios?2) If present, does empathy vary with students’ level of training? We analyzed empathy in 155 medical student interactions with depression and bipolar virtual-patients, using the Empathic Communication Coding System. The mean empathic intensity of responses was 1.5 (0-7 scale) for depression and 2.2 for a bipolar scenario. Third-year students responded to the depression virtual-patient with significantly more empathy than 1st (p<0.001) and 2nd–year students (p<0.001).Medical students communicated empathically with virtual patients, but showed less empathy than physicians interacting with live patients. The intensity of the empathic responses increased with the year of training in our sample, which supports the view that empathy can be learned.

Foster, A., et al. "Empathic communication in medical students’ interactions with mental health virtual patient scenarios: a descriptive study using the Empathic Communication Coding System." Austin J Psychiatry Behav Sci 1.3 (2014): 6.


The Virtual Experiences Research Group

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