Changing the narrative through empathy

Changing the narrative through empathy

Empathy can change an older cancer patient’s perspective on death and dying. In fact, it can change the narrative of a patient’s life, leaving a legacy of purpose and meaning.

A couple of days ago I met with geriatric clinicians and researchers at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center to discuss the progress of the Muriel Lloyd Inspiration Fund. The Fund has focused on research-based psychological support of older people with cancer. Under the capable leadership of Dr. Jimmie Holland, Dr. Andy Roth, and Dr. Chris Nelson, Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSKCC) is developing models to support the elderly as they struggle with cancer diagnoses and subsequent treatments.  The team has completed groundbreaking research on dealing with cancer and aging through interventions as varied as hormone therapy, exercise, and fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to understand brain neuropsychology. Dr. Jimmie Holland emphasizes that she and her team place empathy at the center of their work.

As the physicians and researchers explained their research and applications, I became intrigued with one particular intervention designed to improve communication between health care practitioners and older cancer patients. The Geriatric Communication Skills Project gives doctors the tools they need to communicate with older patients with empathy and efficiency. Led by MSKCC’s Dr. Patricia Parker, the project is the first structured communications initiative at a comprehensive cancer center.

Dr. Jimmie Holland emphasizes that she and her team place empathy at the center of their work.

Its goal is to find the most effective and lasting way to train surgeons, oncologists, and other health care professionals to communicate with empathy and effectiveness. The “Comskil” project is the only one of its kind to have a dedicated staff of facilitators and a dedicated laboratory space, which includes a classroom and six video-recording training rooms equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

The project taps into the recognized need for empathy among health care practitioners when dealing with patients with cancer, as well as general doctor-patient relationships. In a simulated clinical environment that makes use of actors as “patients,” participants learn a variety of communication skills including breaking bad news, dealing with prognoses, and facing death and dying. The simulations help clinicians understand and empathize with the depression, loneliness, and isolation often experienced by older cancer patients.

The MSKCC lab has applied these communication simulations to train more than 1000 oncology clinicians in new communication approaches that stress empathy. Researchers are demonstrating with three research-based modules that skills such as empathy can help physicians successfully communicate with their patients within the 8-minute communication window of the typical patient appointment.

As I reflected upon the successes of the Comskil project, I began to see potential for its application among educators. Think about the benefits for teachers trained in communication skills that emphasize empathy. Empathy embraces differences; it connects people and builds strong relationships. It has the potential to change the narrative of a student’s life.

Empathy in student-teacher relationships can spill over into the atmosphere of the classroom, providing new opportunities for socio-emotional learning — those soft skills so important in conducting everyday life. When teachers put themselves in the shoes of their students with communication skills such as listening to student feedback, they can enhance student engagement and improve learning. An exclusive focus on academics alone shortchanges both teacher and student just as an exclusive focus on physical healing alone shortchanges both the doctor and patient.

In an environment that increasingly touts metrics in both health care and education, measurement without empathy often fails to meet the needs of patients and students. Programs like MSKCC’s Comskil project, with its focus on improving communication between healthcare providers and older cancer patients, shows how empathy can change the narrative of a person’s life.




Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



  • Anna January 25, at 13:24

    I believe lack of empathy is a huge problem in the field of healthcare. It not only affects the quality of care but it damages the view and attitude of patients when they visit a healthcare center. This project sounds unique and much needed, and I hope it inspires other hospitals to focus more on empathy.


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