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'I'm sorry to hear that'-Empathy and Empathic Dissonance: the Perspectives of PA Students

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JournalMedical Science Educator
DateE-pub ahead of print - 13 May 2020
Number of pages10
Original languageEnglish

Abstract

Context: Our understanding of clinical empathy could be enhanced through qualitative research-research currently under-represented in the field. Physician associates within the UK undergo an intensive 2-year postgraduate medical education. As a new group of health professionals, they represent a fresh pair of eyes through which to examine clinical empathy, its nature and teaching.

Methods: Working with a constructivist paradigm, utilising grounded theory methodology, researchers studied 19 purposively sampled physician associate students in two UK medical schools. One-to-one semi-structured interviews were transcribed verbatim. Data were analysed using a grounded theory approach.

Results: The global themes were the pathways to empathy, empathy modifiers and empathic dissonance a novel term to describe the discomfort students experience when pressurised into making empathic statements they don't sincerely feel. Students preferred using non-verbal over verbal expressions of empathy. A conceptual model is proposed. The more substantial empathic pathway, affective empathy, involves input from the heart. An alternative empathy, more constrained, comes from the head: cognitive empathy was considered a solution to time pressure and emotional burden. Formal teaching establishes empathic dissonance, a problem which stems from over-reliance on the empathic statement as the means to deliver clinical empathy.

Conclusions: This study furthers our understanding of the construct and teaching of empathy. It identifies empathic barriers, especially time pressure. It proposes a novel concept-empathic dissonance-a concept that challenges medical educationalists to reframe future empathy teaching.

Bibliographical note

© The Author(s) 2020.

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