A recent study found doctors lack empathetic responses to patients, in part because medical schools don’t teach doctors how to respond to patients in caring ways.

The study, conducted at the University of Toronto, explained oncologists responded to patients with empathy — the ability to acknowledge and understand another’s experience — a mere 22 per cent of the time.

“Currently there is insufficient emphasis and time apportioned to teaching the empathic response in medical school,” the study explained. It was also noted other works had discovered empathy was a teachable skill in medical schools.

According to Terri Paul, course chair for the patient-centred clinical methods course at Western’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, the course has been taught for over 10 years.

“[This] is where we teach the students not only how to do the physical exam skills, but we also focus a lot on the communication skills,” Paul explained.

The course brings in trained individuals to be patients for the doctors-in-training. These patients are encouraged to give feedback to their doctors in order to improve their communication skills.

“Part of what we talk about when we talk about empathizing and being a good physician is being able to listen and hear what the patient is saying.”

Amanda Wilhelm, a first-year medical student, noted in her pre-admissions interview she was asked to respond to patients empathetically.

She also explained even some of her most stubborn classmates had better patient approaches because of the course.

“You kind of have to in order to even pass the courses,” she explained. “I think it's fairly effective.”

Wilhelm noted she felt the course allowed her to gain experience with patients.

“Practicing is the best way that we can learn it and we do get a lot of practice time.”

Learning how to break bad news to patients and interview them about their symptoms were two of the highlights of the program, Paul explained.

“One hundred per cent of students really enjoy this course, because it’s the way to learn probably the most important skill in medicine, in a very non-threatening environment.”

Good communication did not just benefit the patient being treated, Paul said.

“We know as physicians, when we look at down the road, issues with malpractice suits and that kind of thing, 90 per cent of those are just caused by lack of good communication."


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