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Pioneering Centre for Empathic Healthcare to Open in Leicester

A unique £10m centre for empathic healthcare is to be built at the University of Leicester, co-funded by the University and the Stoneygate Trust. As part of its work, the new Stoneygate Centre for Excellence in Empathic Healthcare will develop and deliver empathy-focused training as an integral part of the curriculum for undergraduate and postgraduate medical students and healthcare professionals in Leicester, with the ultimate aim of making such training available nationally.

Leicester Medical School is currently the only institute in the UK to deliver a mandatory empathy-focused curriculum to its foundation year students, in a programme that has been running for 5 years. The pioneering new centre will enable this training to be enhanced and extended across the whole medical school.

Professor Richard Holland, head of Leicester Medical School, said: "A medical school’s job is to create talented graduates with excellent knowledge, clinical skills, and ability to consult. At Leicester, our ambition has always been to take that mission further and ensure that our students also have a genuinely holistic and empathic approach to all their patients.

"This unique Centre will allow us to undertake a step change in the way we educate and develop doctors of the future, to ensure patients feel that they have been cared for with empathy. I am excited to see the long-term impact that the work of the Centre will have on our students and their future patients.

"It is only through partnership with The Stoneygate Trust that we will be able to realise our shared vision."

Aim to Achieve Better Outcomes for Patients and Better Resilience For Healthcare Workers

The Stoneygate Trust, named after a suburb of Leicester, is a charity established in 2007 by Sir Will and Lady Nadine Adderley with a focus on medical research and helping to support educational opportunities for disadvantaged children and students. Sir Will is a director and major shareholder of Dunelm, the home furnishings business started by his parents, originally selling curtains that had been rejected by Marks and Spencer from a Leicester market stall.

Sir Will said: "The Stoneygate Trust is delighted to build on the success achieved by Stoneygate and the University with the Leicester Medical Foundation Programme over the last five years. This has demonstrated the power of empathic healthcare and developed real champions amongst students from diverse backgrounds.

"The University and the Trust together are now building a Centre of Excellence in Empathic Healthcare to train doctors to achieve both better outcomes for patients and increased resilience amongst healthcare professionals.  I am very excited by the far-reaching potential of this major initiative."

Dr Andrew Ward, senior clinical educator within Leicester Medical School and lead for the 'compassionate holistic diagnostic detective course' – a title he said wasn’t his idea but "it sort of stuck" – told Medscape UK that the notion of empathy-focused training was developed in response to an apparent crisis in compassionate patient care noted in the past couple of decades.

Research had shown that only 0.4% to 0.6% of physician communications with patients were expressions of empathy or compassion, even though three-quarters of both patients and physicians believed that compassion was so important in treatment that it could make the difference between life and death.

The public enquiry into the Mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust in 2013 found, among many quality concerns, a widespread and striking lack of compassion, prompting the Prime Minister to call for an urgent renewed focus on compassionate patient care in the NHS.

New Approach: 'Compassionomics'

A new approach dubbed ‘compassionomics’ was born, on which the Leicester methods were based. Dr Ward, who has been a GP for 20 years and at the medical school since 2005, explained that the empathy-based focus runs through the entire course and is not just based on a patient-centred approach: "We’re trying to bring empathy into all parts of the curriculum - anatomy, physiology, biochemistry teaching – at all points we’ll be thinking, what is it like for a patient?

"For instance, if someone has an enzyme deficiency, you may know the effects on the liver, or on digestion, but how does it actually feel to a patient to have that deficiency? The only way you can get a picture of what it actually feels like is to get a patient to tell you."

The course currently includes teaching sessions – 11 in the first year and 19 in the second – along with a scheme to attach the students to a real patient community via a software package called "patients know best", a patient-held electronically-shared record that enables students to discuss with patients and send email messages over the course of a year to find out what it’s like for them to live with their condition and what their interactions with the healthcare system have been like. Students also go out to visit patients in the community, and a patient-carer group comes in to do sessions with students.

"We get patients into this at all levels. It’s not just an add-on, it’s an integral part of all the teaching that we do," Dr Ward said. He dubs it 'compassionate curiosity' - trying to understand why patients might say what they say.

"Patients have given massively good feedback on how much the students have helped, how they’ve seemed empathic and interested," he said. "Patients have taken a lot from taking part in that teaching and found it really positive."

'We Feel that It Works': Dr Ward

The department also has a research focus, aiming to provide data to show that empathy-focused care improves outcomes for patients and also for doctors and for the health service. "We feel that it works; now we need to prove it works," Dr Ward said. The Centre will 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.

"There is a feeling that we need more empathy in healthcare. Medical students start with a lot of empathy in the first year and then it drops off as they progress through medical school, so they have less empathy by the time they graduate... we need to try to keep it up there. Part of the reason for the centre is to be able to prove that [this approach] makes a difference.

"Not only are we helping our patients by doing this but also we’re helping our future doctors to get more from their career as well."

The same is true of doctors generally. "It’s counterintuitive," Dr Ward explained. "There was a feeling that the more empathic doctors might burn out, but actually the opposite is true – the more empathic they are, the less likely they are to burn out.

"We’re all aware of the pressures that doctors are under at the moment, feeling like a production line at times... it can be quite hard to keep at the job, but developing an interest in patients’ lives makes the job a bit more pleasurable in my experience... I come home feeling better after my working day."

The new Stoneygate Centre for Excellence in Empathic Healthcare is proposed to officially launch in autumn this year.

Lead Image Credit: eyesfoto/Getty Images