Is it Possible to Teach Empathy?

News blog readers will know that I am fascinated by the question of whether it is possible to teach people to be kinder, more patient-centered, and to show more empathy. A recent meta-analysis of RCTs sheds important light on the critical issue of empathy training.[1] Unlike previous systematic reviews, this study included only experimental studies. Overall, 19 studies met the inclusion criteria for the meta-analysis.

One important issue concerns how the endpoint was measured. In 11 of the 19 included studies the outcome was an objective measure, while in the remainder the outcome was self-reported.

Overall, educational interventions produced a positive benefit that was statistically significant. When the authors made an adjustment for possible publication bias, the effect size was only slightly reduced, remaining highly significant statistically.

I expected to find that the effect size was greater for the self-reported outcomes than for objective outcomes. In fact, the effect size was larger and more highly significant for the objective measures of effect.

Some people classify empathy training in two forms: cognitive and effective, to cover the intellectual and emotional aspects of empathy. Others have questioned this dichotomy, arguing that the emotional and the cognitive parts have to interact to produce empathetic behaviour. As it turned out, all studies included a cognitive component.

This is a very interesting and important study. My main problem with the study is that they do not give a breakdown according to whether the objective measure was self-reported or objective. Also, the results do not tell us how enduring the effects were. I have argued before that one of the main criteria of good communication and compassionate care is the desire to achieve these projectors. The most important thing to instil is a deep-seated desire to do a better job. It would seem that training has a part to play in achieving this objective. However, sustained exposure to excellent role models is also critically important and a crucial part of the education of health professionals.

— Richard Lilford, CLAHRC WM Director

Reference:

  1. Teding van Berkhout E & Malouff JM. The Efficacy of Empathy Training: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. J Counsel Psychol. 2016; 63(1): 32-41.
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