How Dentists are Learning Empathy

relaxed dental patient

How do dentists learn empathy? An experiment at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry shows one approach.

No matter the time of the year, a Google search of “oral health news” or “latest dental news” usually reveals countless stories about free dental clinics, free care for vets, or dentists who volunteer to help those in need.

Among the many positive takeaways from these articles is that dentists love to help people.

Empathy is clearly a common trait of any sound medical professional. But how do dentists learn empathy? An experiment done at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in 2016 shed some light on how dentists can become more understanding.

Walking in Patients’ Shoes

At UNC, third-year dental students are required to spend eight weeks treating patients from low-income neighborhoods around the state. The program has existed for 45 years. Even so, faculty member Lewis Lampiris began to see that students, many of whom were from well off families, were still not able to truly connect with their patients.

“I would hear things like, ‘These people are bad that come to these clinics.’ ‘These parents – they don’t take care of their kids.’ ‘They don’t feed them well.’ ‘They bring the whole family to the visit,’” Lampiris told North Carolina Health News.

Lampiris decided to put the students through an exercise in empathy that the school’s nursing students use. When Lampiris introduces the exercise to the students, he tells them frankly that no mock-up can ever truly show them exactly what it’s like to live in poverty.

“This is not a game,” Lampiris tells his students. “I want you to be aware that there are some members, some of your classmates here, who have experienced poverty. This is where they came from. For them, this is real. I want you to respect that fact.”

…be aware that some of your classmates have experienced poverty. For them, this is real. I want you to respect that fact.

To begin, Lampiris splits the students into groups, or “families,” with each group member assigned a role. He gives each “family” details about their expenses and total income as well work, school, or other responsibilities.

The families use fake money to cover bills, groceries, gas and common expenses like car maintenance, health issues, or a tutor. These bills left some unable to pay rent, and forced them to seek help from a lender or a pawn shop owner.

A Firmer Understanding of Patients’ Economic Decisions

At the end of the exercise, 98% of the students said that they found it helpful. That includes Kelsey Knight Cody, who was very skeptical at first.

Cody told NC News she thought of the exercise often when she worked with patients. Now, she said, she has a firmer understanding of her low-income patients’ economic decisions.

“They may just not have time, or the clinic hours wouldn’t work out, or they couldn’t take off from their job because that would mean they couldn’t feed their family that week or they didn’t have transportation,” Cody said.


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Some students told Lampiris that they identified at once with some patients when they saw their responsibilities were very similar to the roles they had played in the exercise. He believes more medical and dental schools should do this type of exercise.

“There will be more and more people that cannot access care because of the costs associated with it,” he said. “Everybody who is taking care of folks needs to understand.”

Nice, huh? Okay, then, you know the drill…

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