A chance encounter leads to research on empathy teaching at the University of Edinburgh

UNIVERSITY OF EDINBURGH 2013 PROSPECTUS.In 2014, my fellow Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Science colleague Jessie Paterson and I attended the Higher Education Academy (HEA) conference to present on a Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme (PTAS) funded research project on social media use in teaching. Presenting in the same session was another University of Edinburgh colleague, Jo Alexjuk from the School of Health in Social Science. Jo gave a talk on the use of social media to create constructed accounts for ‘characters’ with chronic pain as a way of helping physiotherapy students understand the day to day experience of their patients. This led to a discussion on empathy, particularly on how practitioners should try to understand the perspective of those they work with.

This chance encounter led Jessie, Jo and I to talk further about our students. Jo works primarily with nursing students and postgraduate students studying for a Masters on dementia while Jessie and I work with veterinary students. Jessie and I felt that the human aspect of client care in veterinary practice was often seen as a lower priority to veterinary students than the animal side, while Jo described how nursing and dementia care is generally supposed to person-centred but this can get lost in the myriad of other issues to be dealt with in the workplace. All of us agreed it would be interesting to explore with our students what they felt human empathy in their profession looked like and whether they felt it was sufficiently discussed in their training.

Students are trained on a wide range of species, including exotic animals.

We submitted a bid for a small PTAS grant along with two other colleagues, Rachel Whittington and Stacy Spielman from the Vet School. The aim of this project was to explore students’ perceptions of human empathy, what it is and how it develops, and discuss examples they have seen in practice. We also wanted to explore what the students might see as barriers to displaying empathy in their practice, where they saw empathy discussed in their programmes, and what we as educators could do to support them in developing their understanding of empathy in practice.

I am pleased to say the bid was successful and I held semi-structured face to face online interviews with 2 final-year veterinary students, 1 MSc in advanced nursing student, and 2 MSc in Dementia students. The interviews were fascinating as each student had a lot to say on the subject of empathy. They described empathy in a similar way to how it is defined in the literature; as being able to place yourself in another’s shoes and use your understanding of their perspective to guide your actions (see next steps for this literature).

All the students felt it was important to be empathetic to the people they work with in practice, but barriers such as lack of time or workplace dynamics may get in the way of this. Additionally the veterinary students felt there was a tension between doing what was the best for the animal, which as a vet is their priority, and managing the expectations and feelings of the human owner. All students felt that empathy was covered in some aspects of their teaching but that there was room for more discussion of issues around this including how to protect oneself from burnout and how to balance the various challenges of the workplace.

The results of this small-scale study have opened more questions on how empathy is presented in different health disciplines across the institution and we hope now to apply for additional funding to expand our research across more disciplines.

With thanks to the Principal’s Teaching Award Scheme for the funding to undertake this research.

Next steps:

Read some of the literature on empathy used in this study:

Krznaric R. Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. Penguin Random House, 2014.

Mercer SW, Reynolds WJ. Empathy and quality of care. British Journal of General Practice. 52:S9-S12, 2002.

Kirsty Hughes

Kirsty Hughes is a Researcher in Veterinary Medical Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh. Her research interests include assessment and feedback, educational research methods, the student experience, student and staff wellbeing and development.

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