Making Meaning of Empathy: A Qualitative Study of Empathy Education at UTMB


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Empathy has been emphasized as part of a larger professionalism initiative nationwide in medical education and has been a contentious topic insofar as there has been much academic debate over its definition and application in clinical settings. While recent research has focused on quantification of student empathy and ways to improve empathy education, there has been little critical analysis of what the term means to students and factors influencing this meaning-making process. Students at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB), an academic health science center in Galveston, Texas, are taught about empathy formally through the Practice of Medicine courses and informally through modeling by physicians and other students. They then adapt and mold the concept based upon their own needs, experiences and social environments. Using a qualitative constructivist paradigm with a focus on the social aspects of empathy, I will explore how the concept of empathy is defined and operationalized by medical students at UTMB who volunteer at a student-run free health clinic. Through participant observation and interviews, I will explore both the rhetoric and the reality of empathy, as experienced by the students, in order to contribute to the critical evaluation of this frequently used term.



empathy, medical education, qualitative research