Adding empathy to the medical school curriculum

Adding empathy to the medical school curriculum

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After medical school and residency training, young doctors may be ready to diagnose ailments and prescribe remedies. But when it comes to talking to someone about death, dealing with their own emotions or simply knowing how to sit with someone who is suffering, those leaving medical school and beginning their practice may be unprepared.

A new program of study at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston addresses this need by building empathy and compassion into the curriculum.

“Classic medical training has a history of teaching physicians to detach emotionally from their patients in order to be objective and make the appropriate intellectual decision,” said Dr. Cara Geary, professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

While objectivity and detachment may be needed at times, emotional distance can lead to burnout for doctors and may not be what a patient needs, Geary said.

UTMB started the Physician Healer track two years ago to help students focus on areas such as self-awareness, life balance, better communication techniques and practice in being a healing presence for patients. The track is taught alongside other medical school courses.

Geary said she knew from her own experience that something was missing in her medical training. She said she was unprepared for her first six months at her fellowship where she had to take 12 infants off of life support.

“Where was the training to teach you to sit down with someone and tell them they are going to die?” Geary said she remembered thinking.

But these aren’t necessarily new ideas in medical school. Doctors and professors at UTMB and at other medical universities have addressed these areas in a variety of ways in the past. But, Geary said, the Physician Healer track is unique in bringing those ideals together into a six-month curriculum integrated into to the four years of medical school.

The new program has resonated with doctors and professors at UTMB, who have donated their expertise and money to get the track started, and with students, she said.

“The Physician Healer track has quickly become one of the most popular of the tracks we offer students,” said Dr. Steven A. Lieberman, senior dean for administration at UTMB. “The track helps students to think more deeply about their role as the patient’s doctor and to reflect on how to address patients’ needs.”

Over 25 percent of the 2015 class have signed up for the track, Geary said.

Elizabeth May, a third-year medical student who joined the track in her first year at UTMB, said she knew when she decided to study medicine that she wanted to avoid the stereotypical idea of a doctor who rushes from patient to patient focused more on a medical chart than the person in front of them.

The Physician Heater track was the place to start to be more of a healer and patient-centered doctor, she said.

“We are being given an opportunity to really be centered and really be with our patients,” May said. “I think it is going to lead to a new breed of physician.”

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