Effects of a 2-Week Remote Learning Program on Empathy and Clinical and Communication Skills in Premedical Students: Mixed Methods Evaluation Study
Srivastava U., Price A., Chu LF.
Background Expressing empathy builds trust with patients, increases patient satisfaction, and is associated with better health outcomes. Research shows that expressing empathy to patients improves patient adherence to medications and decreases patient anxiety and the number of malpractice lawsuits. However, there is a dearth of research on teaching empathy to premedical students. The Clinical Science, Technology, and Medicine Summer Internship of Stanford Medicine (also called the Stanford Anesthesia Summer Institute) is a 2-week collaborative medical internship for high school and undergraduate students to inspire learners to be compassionate health care providers. The summer 2020 program was adapted to accomplish these objectives in a fully remote environment because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Objective This study aims to measure the change in empathy and competencies of participants in clinical and communication skills before and after program participation. Methods A total of 41 participants completed only the core track of this program, and 39 participants completed the core + research track of this program. Participants in both tracks received instructions in selected clinical skills and interacted directly with patients to improve their interviewing skills. Research track participants received additional instructions in research methodology. All participants completed web-based pre- and postsurveys containing Knowledge and Skills Assessment (KSA) questions. Participant empathy was assessed using the validated Consultation and Relational Empathy measure. A subset of participants completed optional focus groups to discuss empathy. The pre- and post-KSA and Consultation and Relational Empathy measure scores were compared using paired 2-tailed t tests and a linear regression model. Open-ended focus group answers were then analyzed thematically. Results Participants in both tracks demonstrated significant improvement in empathy after the 2-week remote learning course (P=.007 in core track; P<.001 in research track). These results remained significant when controlling for gender and age. A lower pretest score was associated with a greater change in empathy. Participants in both tracks demonstrated significant improvement in KSA questions related to surgical skills (P<.001 in core track; P<.001 in research track), epinephrine pen use (P<.001 in core track; P<.001 in research track), x-ray image interpretation (P<.001 in core track; P<.001 in research track), and synthesizing information to solve problems (P<.001 in core track; P=.05 in research track). The core track participants also showed significant improvements in health communication skills (P=.001). Qualitative analysis yielded 3 themes: empathy as action, empathy as a mindset, and empathy in designing health care systems. Conclusions Summer internships that introduce high school and undergraduate students to the field of health care through hands-on interaction and patient involvement may be an effective way to develop measurable empathy skills when combined with clinical skills training and mentorship. Notably, increases in empathy were observed in a program administered via a remote learning environment.