Beyond words: What can help first year medical students practice effective empathic communication?

Jennifer B. Plotkin, Robert Shochet

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Objective: To gain insight into first year medical students’ experiences of practicing empathic communication and how patients that train students perceive such communication, in order to inform early communication skills training. Methods: Our study consisted of four focus groups, two of year one students who completed a first semester clinical skills course, one of standardized patients, and one of volunteer outpatients. Focus group transcripts were independently coded and iteratively reviewed to identify major themes. Course evaluation data was collected and analyzed. Results: Themes from student focus groups described significant challenges in striving to convey empathy: coping with anxiety due to multitasking, “buying-in” to learning empathy, and managing vulnerability when engaging emotionally. Patients appreciated students’ expression of vulnerability and nonverbal communication. Conclusion: First year medical students encounter challenges in learning empathic communication, and patients may perceive empathy from students in ways other than verbal responses. Early communications curricula should focus on assisting students with anxiety of multi-tasking, sense of vulnerability, buy-in to communications training, and the importance of non-verbal communication. Practice implications: A deliberate focus on empathetic responsiveness, especially non-verbal, might lessen anxiety, improve attentional switching, and build confidence in managing vulnerability for early medical students learning communication skills.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2005-2010
Number of pages6
JournalPatient Education and Counseling
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2018


  • Anxiety
  • Buy-in
  • Communication
  • Communication skills
  • Empathy
  • Medical education
  • Medical student
  • Nonverbal communication
  • Vulnerability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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