Cadavers Teach Empathy

I usually think about empathy in the context of design thinking and non-violent communication. In this fascinating article from The Atlantic, I learned that typically medical students are taught to become emotionally detached from their patients as they practice dissections on cadavers.

Now reversing this process somewhat, the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine is holding “Donor Lunches” where medical students meet the families of the deceased persons whose bodies they will dissect as part of their education in order to build empathy in the students. Interestingly, the idea was inspired by a Taiwanese medical school’s practice where families of the deceased and medical students engaged in Buddhist prayers together prior to the dissections.

This is a wonderful example of a social innovation adapted for cultural appropriateness by Professor Jerry Vannatta, who created the Donor Lunches at UO College of Medicine. One of the results of this program is more respectful and meaningful nicknames to replace the insensitive ones medical students previously came up with for cadavers. Kudos to Vannatta and to the Taiwanese for coming up with medical practices that re-integrate previously lacking empathy into the healing practice of medicine.

And just as well, because a 1990 study out of Stanford University suggests that medical students experience feelings similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when they cut open cadavers; this emotional distress needs to be addressed. Allowing medical students to feel empathy, respect and care for the deceased and their families offers a win-win solution for everyone involved, and puts the human(e) back into the medical profession.

The humble scalpel, used by medical students to cut into their first cadavers. The current trend is toward helping medical students build empathy for the deceased persons whose bodies they use to learn from.

The humble scalpel, used by medical students to cut into their first cadavers. The current trend is toward helping medical students build empathy for the deceased persons whose bodies they use to learn from.

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