Empathy as a learning objective in medical education: using phenomenology of learning theory to explore medical students' learning processes

Elisabeth Assing Hvidt*, Anne Ulsø, Cecilie Valentin Thorngreen, Jens Søndergaard, Christina Maar Andersen


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BACKGROUND: Clinical empathy has been associated with a range of positive patient- and clinician outcomes. Educating medical students to become empathic physicians has in recent years become a clearly pronounced learning objective in medical education in many countries worldwide. Research knowledge about how medical students experience the learning processes conveyed by empathy-enhancing educational interventions is lacking. Our study aimed to explore Danish medical students' perspectives on which experiences allowed learning processes to take place in relation to empathy and empathic communication with patients. METHODS: We conducted a qualitative research study, involving semi-structured interviews with twenty-three Danish medical students across years of curriculum and universities. Braun and Clarke's reflexive thematic analysis (RTA) guided the analytical process, moving on a continuum from inductive to deductive, theoretical approaches. Key concepts in regard to learning processes deriving from Amadeo Giorgi's learning theory were applied to analyse the data. RESULTS: Learning processes in relation to clinical empathy occured: 1. when theoretical knowledge about empathy became embodied and contextualied within a clinical context 2. through interpersonal interactions, e.g., with peers, faculty members and clinicians, that conveyed behavior-mobilizing positive and negative affect and 3. when new learning discoveries in 2. and 3. were appropriated as a personalized and adequate behavior that transcends the situational level. CONCLUSION: Rather than being an immediate product of knowledge transmission, skill acquisition or training, learning clinical empathy is experienced as a dynamic, temporal process embedded in a daily clinical lifeworld of becoming an increasingly human professional.

TidsskriftBMC Medical Education
Udgave nummer1
Antal sider12
StatusUdgivet - 19. aug. 2022

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