Empathy 101


It seems that there are medical schools taking the initiative to help their students become more compassionate.  It’s a worthy goal but I don’t know if it’s possible.  We can teach individuals to act compassionate.  But that, of course, is different from being compassionate.  While there may be literature to support the cause, I don’t think that a curriculum can cultivate empathy.

Is it possible to change a student or doctor’s heart?  Of course, I see it all the time.  But not from role playing or small groups.  It’s human circumstances that drive change.  Personal loss and life experience tempered by introspection and humility change how we see those around us.  It’s only when we recognize our own vulnerability that we can begin to see it in others.  This doesn’t happen in a classroom.

Maybe we need to do a better job choosing students on the front end.  Of course it’s easy to find someone who can make it through medical school.  It’s harder to find someone who can make it through with the capacity and drive to connect with others.  But the academic complex likes its numbers and standard curves.  Abstract human qualities are terribly difficult to plot.

Perhaps we’ll figure out how to reliably measure these things.  Until then we should see empathy as a gift and recognize that there are certain human traits that are very difficult to teach.