Increasing diversity among patients provides opportunity for empathy muscle workout

A new paper by University of Leicester researchers calls for health professionals to embrace the benefits of diversity to exercise their ‘empathy muscle’.

Increased diversity in the UK and many developed nations is a cause for celebration; it can also makes it challenging for doctors to relate to their increasingly diverse patients.

But a new article published today (16 November) in the British Journal for General Practice outlines a plan that turns diversity from a barrier to facilitator of empathy.

The research, led by the University of Leicester’s Stoneygate Centre for Excellence in Empathic Healthcare, found that while patient diversity is a potential impediment to empathy, it also points towards a solution. Exposing patients from a diverse range of ethnic and social backgrounds to doctors creates fertile ground for fostering unconscious (and, perhaps, conscious) normalisation and acceptance of different opinions, cultures and beliefs.

The authors of the paper propose a four-step plan for using diversity as a tool to enhance empathy:

  1. Improved communication skills
  2. Use diversity as an opportunity to stimulate the empathy ‘muscle’
  3. Introduce empathy and diversity training
  4. Encourage students from all walks of lives and cultures to attend medical school.

Professor Jeremy Howick is a lead author of the study and the Director of the Stoneygate Centre for Excellence in Empathic Healthcare. He said “The increased diversity of the patient population provides doctors with a unique opportunity to exercise their ‘empathy muscle’. In a country such as the UK, specifically in diverse cities such as Leicester, doing so is a requirement for person-centred care.

“Within the same hour in a clinic, a healthcare practitioner may see a male farmer nearing retirement with back pain, who has never spoken about his feelings, a female immigrant from Syria with respiratory problems, who is worried about paying for her care, a young student using a wheelchair, who is suffering from depression, and a transgender patient attending a routine check-up.

“Diverse environments provide opportunities for patients and practitioners to learn the necessary skills to be able to adapt communication, clinical and empathic practices to the person they are working with, whatever that individual’s background. By contrast, when practitioners work within a homogeneous group to which they already belong, they may rely on assumptions about patients, thus allowing their ‘empathy muscle’ to atrophy.”

The Stoneygate Centre for Excellence in Empathic Healthcare is a unique £10m Centre, co-funded by the University and The Stoneygate Trust, that aims to ensure that medical students and healthcare professionals across the UK are taught about the vital importance of empathy as an integral part of all aspects of their medical training.

Announced earlier this year, and due to launch in April 2023, the Centre will also undertake pioneering research into the impact of empathic care on both patients and practitioners, and campaign for empathy to be placed at the heart of our healthcare system.