A curriculum focused on informed empathy improves attitudes toward persons with disabilities

Miller SR.
Perspect Med Educ. 2013 Mar 6. [Epub ahead of print]

Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Michigan Medical School, 325 E. Eisenhower Parkway, 2nd Floor, Ann Arbor, MI, 48108, USA, sonyamil@med.umich.edu.

Empathy is an important component of the provider-patient relationship. In the United States one in five persons has a disability. Persons with disabilities perceive gaps in health care providers’ understanding of their health care preferences and needs. The purpose of this study was to use valid and reliable assessment methods to investigate the association between empathy and attitudes toward persons with disabilities and advocacy. An educational module was developed to enhance health care students’ capacity for informed empathy. Pre- and post-assessment measures included the Attitude toward Disabled Persons scale (ATDP), the Attitudes toward Patient Advocacy Microsocial scale (AMIA) and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI). ATDP (t(94) = -5.95, p = .000) and AMIA (t(92) = -5.99, p = .000) scores increased significantly after the education module. Correlations between the pre- or post-module ATDP or AMIA scores and the IRI scores were not significant. Empathy in general may not be sufficient to ensure optimal attitudes toward persons with disabilities or advocacy in pre-health care professionals. However, a curriculum based on informed empathy and focused on the experiences of persons with disabilities can result in more positive attitudes toward and advocacy for people with disabilities.