Ann Jurecic is Associate Professor in the Department of English at Rutgers University and a leading scholar in growing field of Medical Humanities. Her book, Illness as Narratives (University of Pittsburg Press, 2012), charts the emergence of personal writing about illness in the twentieth century. She recently co-authored a book about creative writing, Habits of the Creative Mind (Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2015). Jurecic teaches nonfiction writing and courses related to literature and medicine.
The for-profit company Empathetics performed a randomized clinical trial to confirm that their course improved physicians’ empathy in three one-hour online modules, at a cost of $400 per person. What their trial actually demonstrated is that the course improved “patient-rated empathy measures, the knowledge of the neurobiology of empathy, and the ability to decode expressions of emotion.” Are these outcomes, which are focused on identifying nonverbal cues, equivalent to empathy? Only if we accept a highly reductive definition of the term. Empathetics and courses like it stand in contrast to medical humanities programs that use literature to enhance attention to the complexities of human lives. An experienced teacher doesn’t need to do a randomized clinical trial to know that reading and discussing literature will not automatically render students more empathic: empathy is more complicated than that. But regular practice with reading literature (or philosophy or history) can cultivate habits such as paying attention, questioning, exploring, reflecting, and persisting, all of which contribute to fostering thoughtful physicians.
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