Postgraduate research

Artificial Empathy

Qualification: PhD

Department: School of Healthcare

Application deadline: 7 April 2024

Start date: 23 September 2024



Project description

Empathic healthcare improves patient quality of life and satisfaction with their care while reducing their pain.1,2 Higher levels of practitioner empathy are also associated with lower mortality among diabetic patients.3 Empathy can also reduce practitioner burnout.4,5 Despite its importance, the extent to which patients report that their practitioners are empathic varies widely,6 and medical student empathy appears to decline throughout medical school.7 To address this problem, the Stoneygate Centre for Empathic Healthcare are developing and implementing a revolutionary evidence-based empathy curriculum to the Leicester Medical School, and also to healthcare professionals in the NHS and beyond.


To develop, deliver, and evaluate research-based educational empathy interventions to medical students and healthcare professionals. [NB: While hosted in a medical school, this is not a medical education project per se. The PhD candidates will focus on the research to underpin an evidence-based curriculum.]

Research questions and how answering them will contribute to wider knowledge

The PhD candidate will be able to choose from one of the following research questions:

  1. Can artificially intelligent care- and chat-bots be as empathic as human practitioners (and can they leverage the benefits of empathic care for patients)? Like it or not, care- and chat-bots are increasingly being used for patient care, even at times replacing human beings. These new technologies have not been evaluated so the extent to which they can be empathic (and thus generate the positive patient benefits of empathic care) is not known.
  2. Can virtual reality be used to train healthcare practitioners and medical students to enhance how they express empathy? Virtual reality (VR) training devices are being used and developed at a very fast pace. We do not know the relative benefits and risks of VR training for healthcare practitioners compared with training from real human trainers.
  3. Is empathic healthcare cost-effective? Whereas there is no longer a substantial debate about whether empathic healthcare benefits patients, the jury is still out on whether it is cost-effective. Evidence must be gathered on how long and how much time it takes to provide empathy training and to deliver effective empathic care.
  4. What is the evidence that empathy training interventions are needed for postgraduate training? Much of the evidence for the effects of empathic care and empathy training has been gathered in the context of medical school or routine medical practice. The extent to which it applies to early medical professional training is not known.
  5. How can the evidence for the benefits of an empathy curriculum for medical students be applied to other healthcare professions such as nursing? Whereas a relatively large amount of time and money has been spent developing and evaluating empathy curricula for medical students, the same has not been done for most allied healthcare education.


The methods will be tailored to the research question, and will involve: 

  • systematic review to identify best existing practice;
  • qualitative research to refine interventions; and
  • rigorous evaluation (where feasible, with controlled trials) of curriculum interventions.

The Stoneygate Team has international expertise and can supervise students who use any of the above methods.

Anticipated outputs and impact: The Stoneygate Centre for Empathic Healthcare has connections with medical schools and professional bodies within the UK and abroad, so this doctoral research will have a measurable and important positive impact on both patients and practitioners. Under the directorship of Professor Jeremy Howick, the doctoral student will produce multiple publications per year.


  1. Howick J, Moscrop A, Mebius A, et al. Effects of empathic and positive communication in healthcare consultations: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 2018;111(7):240-252. doi:10.1177/0141076818769477
  2. Keshtkar L, Madigan CD, Ward A, et al. The Effect of Practitioner Empathy on Patient Satisfaction : A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials. Ann Intern Med. Jan 30 2024;doi:10.7326/M23-2168
  3. Dambha-Miller H, Feldman AL, Kinmonth AL, Griffin SJ. Association Between Primary Care Practitioner Empathy and Risk of Cardiovascular Events and All-Cause Mortality Among Patients With Type 2 Diabetes: A Population-Based Prospective Cohort Study. Ann Fam Med. Jul 2019;17(4):311-318. doi:10.1370/afm.2421
  4. Thirioux B, Birault F, Jaafari N. Empathy Is a Protective Factor of Burnout in Physicians: New Neuro-Phenomenological Hypotheses Regarding Empathy and Sympathy in Care Relationship. Front Psychol. 2016;7:763. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00763
  5. Gleichgerrcht E, Decety J. Empathy in clinical practice: how individual dispositions, gender, and experience moderate empathic concern, burnout, and emotional distress in physicians. PLoS One. 2013;8(4):e61526. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061526
  6. Howick J, Steinkopf L, Ulyte A, Roberts N, Meissner K. How empathic is your healthcare practitioner? A systematic review and meta-analysis of patient surveys. BMC Med Educ. Aug 21 2017;17(1):136. doi:10.1186/s12909-017-0967-3
  7. Ponnamperuma G, Yeo SP, Samarasekera DD. Is empathy change in medical school geo-socioculturally influenced? Med Educ. Jul 2019;53(7):655-665. doi:10.1111/medu.13819



Funding will be provided by the Stoneygate Trust for 3 years. The studentship provides:

  • Tuition fees at UK/home rates for 3 years*
  • Annual stipend rates at UKRI rates for 3 years. These are currently £19,237 per year.
  • Access to a Research Training Support Grant of up to £1,500 per annum for 3 years, to cover the cost of related training and development opportunities (e.g., conference attendance, relevant training).

*The studentship will cover the cost of tuition fees based on the UK (home) rate.

Applications from international students are welcome but applicants will have to source alternative funding for the difference between the UK (home) rate and the overseas rate. The fee difference will be £18,864 per year.

Entry requirements

Entry requirements

Applicants are required to hold/or expect to obtain a UK Bachelor Degree 2:1 or better in a relevant subject.

The University of Leicester English language requirements apply where applicable.

Informal enquiries

Informal enquiries

Project enquiries to Professor Jeremy Howick (

Application enquiries to

How to apply

How to apply

To apply please use the Apply button at the bottom of this page and select September 2024.

With your application, please include:

  • CV
  • Personal statement explaining your interest in the project, your experience and why we should consider you
  • Degree certificates and transcripts of study already completed and if possible transcript to date of study currently being undertaken
  • Evidence of English language proficiency if applicable
  • In the reference section please enter the contact details of your two academic referees in the boxes provided or upload letters of reference if already available.
  • In the funding section please specify SOH Howick - Artificial Empathy 
  • In the proposal section please provide the name of the supervisors and project title (a proposal is not required)



UK and overseas applicants may apply.

Overseas applicants please refer to the funding restrictions before applying.

Back to top