Reconsidering Empathy: An Interpersonal Approach and Participatory Arts in the Medical Humanities.


The decline of empathy among health professional students, highlighted in the literature on health education, is a concern for medical educators. The evidence suggests that empathy decline is likely to stem more from structural problems in the healthcare system rather than from individual deficits of empathy. In this paper, we argue that a focus on direct empathy development is not effective and possibly detrimental to justice-oriented aims. Drawing on critical and narrative theory, we propose an interpersonal approach to enhance empathic capacities that is centered on constructive and transformative interactions which integrates the participatory arts and involves both patients and health professional students. We describe and evaluate a program where patients and students create collaborative, original songs. Interviews and a focus group revealed interactional processes summarized in four themes: reciprocal relationships, interactions in the community, joint goal, and varied collaboration. There was a significant enhancement of positive attitudes about care post-program amongst health professional students. The interpersonal approach may be a preliminary framework for the medical humanities to shift away from a focus on direct empathy development and further towards participatory, co-creative, and justice-oriented approaches to enhance health and thereby empathic capabilities.