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A Role for Medical Students in Empathy

Yes, medical students have limited technical skills. Yes, they have limited knowledge. But despite these limitations, a medical student can comfort the patient as no other individual can.

Many people base their success on what they have accomplished in work, school or family life. However, people rarely achieve this success without developing strong team-working skills. Achieving success on a team enables a person to acquire new skills and work on existing skills. In no other field of work is teamwork central to its core as in the field of medicine. In her article, “For Quality Patient Care, Teamwork in Medicine is Critical,” Dr. Toni Brayer, an internal medicine doctor in San Francisco and a medical advisor for MyLifeStages, states “Medicine is a team sport and it is only when the team is humming and everyone is working together that patients can have good outcomes. Communication between doctors, nurses and other members of the team is vital for positive patient outcomes and to ensure quality patient care.” As one begins to look at the contributions to the medical team, the medical student may often be overlooked. Despite limited technical expertise, the medical student has a unique position: as a facilitator, a patient companion and an individual who can rely on personal experiences to alleviate the worries of another.

Working in any medical environment for an extended period of time can sometimes lead one to allow biases and judgments to come in the way of effective treatment and problem solving. Medical students serve as unbiased facilitators of communication as well as provide companionship to those in need. Medical students are able to see relationships and communicate with people by looking at health and community on a broader level. Medical students can express their thoughts and ideas directly and honestly through a clear lens, free of so-called biases, judgments and stereotypes in a way that both comforts the patient and provides him with a sense of well-being.

It is sometimes forgotten that a patient’s mental health is just as important to the treatment plan as the physical diagnosis. Medical students are patient navigators: patients are seen as people and not simply as numbers or diseases; in return, patients feel more comfortable opening up and participating in constructive discourse. This is not to say that physicians and nurses cannot communicate in this manner; it is just that they have to balance their responsibilities in a highly busy environment. A medical student has the means to communicate with the patient more intimately, thereby allowing the patient to communicate in an open manner. Hence, the medical student can relay this information back to the medical team, leading to a more productive and fulfilling outcome.

Doctors see pain, suffering and dying all the time. In the article, Sympathy & Compassion in Medicine, Dr. Rygel says “It’s easy to forget how to sympathize, empathize, or be compassionate when you have only one hour to finish your morning rounds on 20 patients. Technology, by lessening the interaction between the doctor and patient, adds to the loss of sympathy.” So you might be asking what can a medical student contribute amidst this environment? The answer: be a patient companion. As a companion, the medical student can see the humanity of the individual on a more intimate level. The patient is not seen as a bed number or simply as a case study.

Viewing the medical student-patient relationship with the virtue of compassion is one of the most important tools that a medical student is embodied with in his or her early years of training. If a patient passes away, the medical student can use his or her own experience of losing a loved one to help console and comfort the patient’s family members. The medical student can be a companion to a hospitalized patient in a way that other members of the medical team cannot. Whether it be discussing politics or helping to better explain the patient’s condition, the medical student is in a position to ease the worries of the patient as well as provide peace of mind regardless of physical ailment.

In conclusion, yes, medical students have limited technical skills. Yes, they have limited knowledge. However, despite these limitations, a medical student can comfort the patient as no other individual can. This ability allows the patient to see the medical student as an ally and not simply as an authority. Given the medical establishment as it currently stands, it is difficult for members of the medical team to make it through the day without detaching themselves from the human condition. This emphasizes the importance of the medical student. Medical students serve to reattach the bridge of compassion that is sometimes lost by physicians, nurses, physician assistants and others. It is paramount that doctors, nurses, medical students and other members of the healthcare team continue to work together for quality patient care. A reassured patient will be a more confident patient, which will lead to more positive outcomes. “It is more important,” William Osler said, “to know what patient has a disease than what disease the patient has.”

Hormuz Nicolwala Hormuz Nicolwala (5 Posts)

Editor Emeritus: Former Medical Student Editor (2013-2015)

Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine

I am currently a first-year pediatric resident at the Children's Hospital of West Virginia. I received my MD degree from Texas A&M Health Science Center in 2014. I love medical writing!