University of Wisconsin–Madison Medical College of Wisconsin

A Curriculum to Increase Empathy and Reduce Burnout

Mariah A. Quinn, MD, MPH; Lisa M. Grant, DO; Emmanuel Sampene, PhD; Amy B. Zelenski, PhD

WMJ. 2020;119(4):258-262.

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Purpose: Empathy is essential for good patient care. It underpins effective communication and high-quality, relationship-centered care. Empathy skills have been shown to decline with medical training, concordant with increasing physician distress and burnout.

Methods: We piloted a 6-month curriculum for interns (N = 27) during the 2015-2016 academic year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The course included: (1) review of literature on physician well-being and clinical empathy, (2) instruction on the neurobiology of empathy and compassion, (3) explanation of stress physiology and techniques for mitigating its effects, (4) humanities-informed techniques, and (5) introductions to growth mindset and mindful awareness. To measure effectiveness, we compared empathy and burnout scores before and after the course.

Results: The course was well-attended. Intern levels of burnout and empathy remained stable over the study period. In multivariable modeling, we found that for each session an intern attended, their emotional exhaustion declined by 3.65 points (P = 0.007), personal accomplishment increased by 2.69 points (P = 0.001), and empathic concern improved by 0.82 points (P = 0.066). The course was well-liked. Learners reported applying course content inside and outside of work and expressed variable preferences for content and teaching methods.

Conclusion: Skills in empathic and self-care can be taught together to reduce the decline of empathy and well-being that has been seen during internship. In this single-center pilot, resident physicians reported using these skills both inside and outside of work. Our curriculum has the potential to be adopted by other residency programs.

Author Affiliations:  University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Madison, Wis (Quinn, Grant, Sampene, Zelenski).
Corresponding Author: Amy B. Zelenski, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, UW Medical Foundation Centennial Building, Room 5124, 1685 Highland Ave, Madison, WI 53705; phone 608.263.7358; email; ORCID ID 0000-0002-2096-8567.
Acknowledgements: Statistical support was provided by NIH CTSA 1UL1TR002373.
Funding/Support: None declared.
Financial Disclosures: None declared.
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