Nicki Murff

    I was recently exhibiting at a conference full of brilliant pharmacy technician educators (PTEC in San Antonio, TX). I had brought with me a selection of the wearable trainers that Pocket Nurse carries, among them the S.A. Fingerstick Kit. While looking at it, more than one instructor said that they preferred their students learn about fingersticks by actually using a lancet on each other’s fingers and taking a real glucometer reading. That way the students would have to feel what their future patients would feel. It was a way of building empathy, they said. After all, if a pharmacist or pharmacy tech has never felt a fingerstick, how could they properly prepare their patient to experience it?

    Whether or not one agrees with their methods, their end goal – building empathy in students – is crucial. One of the most important soft skills needed for future healthcare professionals, empathy is the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes and respectfully seek to understand their perspective. It involves active listening, respect for patients, and a desire to work with them to achieve their health goals, rather than dismiss their non-expert opinions. An article in Modern Healthcare discusses the importance of humanistic behavior in healthcare in reducing overall healthcare costs and improving therapeutic outcomes.1

    Incorporating Empathy into Curriculum

    With better patient care outcomes in mind, here are some ways to work empathy training into your classroom activities and simulations:

    1. Use Standardized Patients (SPs). SPs can provide audio and visual feedback that even the highest-fidelity manikins cannot. SPs, especially those who are trained actors, portray nuanced facial expressions, voice intonation, and symptom portrayal that requires students to respond as if the situation were real. As Amy Cowperthwait, founder and CEO of Avkin, says in her guest post, “Seriousness in Simulation: Simulated Participants,” on the SimTalk Blog:

    “I don’t blame students who are unable to suspend disbelief. It’s impossible to empathize with foam and plastic. That’s why I…advocate the use of simulated participants (either patients or family members) wherever I go.”2

    Read our post “Tips for Building a Standardized Patient Program.”

    2. Use Wearable Technology. Wearable technology for simulation covers a range of different tasks, from fingerstick and immunization administration, to blood draws and anti-choking maneuvers. Wearable technology can be applied to SPs, or can be affixed to manikins with a fidelity level that doesn’t allow for injection and/or the use of liquid simulated medications.

    Real Life Sim Simulation Wearable Task Trainer for Injection Education

    3. Cultivate a professional workspace. Although Cowperthwait called it “impossible to empathize with foam and plastic,” students’ chances increase if their simulation labs are as realistic as possible. With a fully stocked lab and strict rules in place regarding interactions with manikins and the appropriate attitudes toward them, instructors can help students foster a professional demeanor that they can carry with them after graduation. Additionally, targeted simulations can help increase empathy in specific contexts, as was concluded in a study on the “Impact of Diabetes Simulation on Empathy in Pharmacy Students.”3

    4. Have Students Practice Active Listening. One of the most important aspects of empathy is deep, engaged listening. Begin a class by having students pair up and talk to each other about their current academic workload and how they feel about it. Encourage them to listen fully to the other person, ask clarifying questions, and end the discussion with a strong understanding of their classmate’s perspective. Learning to listen well to an individual’s description of their current emotional, physical, and symptomatic state can give students unique insight. For instance, User Experience Researcher and Designer Amelia Abreu says she’s stopped participating in disability simulations because they don’t offer a comprehensive understanding of a disability. Instead, she’s found greater understanding by cultivating relationships with those whose experiences differ from hers. She says:

    “We all have people in our lives whose bodies are remarkably different from ours. And it’s through living and critically engaging with diverse groups of people that we’re best able to cultivate empathy generally and constantly, not just selectively and discretely, and to design inclusive solutions that will work better for us all.”4

    Whichever of the above methods resonates with instructors the most, the importance of working empathy into the curriculum cannot be ignored. As Dr. Jennifer Mieres and Michael Wright conclude in their Modern Healthcare article, “If we want to reap the benefits of the humanistic approach and continue to see it grow, then all members of the healthcare team need to be constantly educated on best practices and how to enhance the art of communicating with patients to ensure the best outcomes.” 5

    I know through experience, and through discussions with inspiring educators like those I met at the PTEC conference, that empathy is a skill that can be honed with practice and dedication. When instructors take the time to educate students on its importance, their future patients will be thankful.


    1. Mieres, Jennifer, and Michael Wright. "Commentary: For More Successful Health Policy and Outcomes, Think like a Human." Modern Healthcare. January 26, 2019. Accessed July 17, 2019.

    2. Cowperthwait, Amy. “Seriousness in Simulation: Simulated Participants.” SimTalk Blog. June 29, 2017. Accessed July 17, 2019.

    3. Parker, Debra, Atem Fontem, Etabphoh Ojong, and Janelle Pope. "Impact of Diabetes Simulation on Empathy in Pharmacy Students." American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education. February 2019. Accessed July 17, 2019.

    4. Abreu, Amelia. "Why I Won't "try On" Disability to Build Empathy in the Design Process." Medium. May 01, 2018. Accessed July 17, 2019.

    5. Mieres and Wright. “Think Like a Human.” Modern Healthcare, Jan. 26, 2019

    Ross, Meghan. "5 Ways Pharmacists Can Show Empathy." Pharmacy Times. September 11, 2015. Accessed July 17, 2019.