How technology can help teach empathy

Candida Halton
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“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

The famous quote from Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird inspires us to do more than just listen to someone else’s experience; it challenges us to inhabit their world and take their perspective on an issue. And that’s not an easy thing to do.

But what if we could? How might we think differently about things if we could view the challenges we want to tackle at work, or even at home, through someone else’s eyes?

Nearly twenty years ago Nissan demonstrated the business potential for empathy, developing an ‘ageing suit’ to unlock the design challenges of catering to older drivers. Nissan’s engineers used the suit to simulate some of the physical difficulties faced by the ageing driver: restricted movement of the knees, elbows, back and neck, a reduced sense of touch, and blurry vision. This insight into older drivers’ needs enabled the car manufacturer to realise the business potential of a new and profitable market segment – the growing senior population in Japan.

There's a strong evidence base for the ability of training interventions to enhance empathy

Training to build empathy is already a well-established teaching tool across a range of healthcare professions, focusing on both the physical and emotional impact of illness. For example: trainee pharmacists experiencing the pill burden of the elderly; nurses learning how it feels to be confined to a bed on the ward; and doctors confronting the bio-psychosocial impact of a chronic condition. This area is well researched, with a strong evidence base for the ability of training interventions to enhance empathy. And, in turn, for enhanced empathy to improve not just doctor-patient communication, shared decision-making and patient satisfaction, but hard clinical outcomes too. A great example is the 2011 study by Hojat et al., where diabetic patients cared for by family doctors with greater empathy had better glycaemic control.

At University of Westminster we’ve been researching the benefits of teaching empathy in organisations. Not simply to think differently about a challenge – developing treatments for people living with a chronic condition – but also how this might motivate and engage staff throughout the organisation, from finance to HR. We recently conducted an international evaluation study of an ‘empathy app’ – a digital tool which immerses participants in the experience of living with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD).

This immersive learning experience, In Their Shoes®, was developed by Takeda Inc, the global pharma company. We used both quantitative and qualitative research in our evaluation, allowing us to dig deeper into the experience of climbing into someone else’s skin, as Atticus describes it. The results clearly showed that the immersive learning programme increased empathy in our participants, both towards IBD patients and more generally. But more than that, the emotional rollercoaster of managing a disease left the employees feeling they’d been on a transformative personal journey. The “eye opening” experience generated both positive and negative emotions, a combination shown by Nijstad et al. (2010) to drive creativity. The tension between these opposing feelings was eloquently summed up by one participant: “It was a great experience. I felt lonely, sick and sad”.

For our study participants, as well as increasing their understanding and knowledge about the disease, the experience left them changed. They described the urgency of addressing the stigma of illness, the need for more and better patient advocacy, and their desire to challenge and innovate in their role. They considered it a powerful learning experience – the difference between understanding and generating an emotional engagement that made them want to champion the interests of those with IBD.

The immersive learning didn't stop when people left the office and returned home

From a business perspective, this is an interesting concept: translating an abstract corporate goal into a personal mission. And there are anecdotes and evidence to support the business benefits of using an emotionally charged narrative to energise teams. From a research standpoint we were able to uncover some of the characteristics that make this kind of intervention successful. We found that authenticity was key – participants needed to know that they were experiencing the ‘real life’ of a patient. Duration was also important – the immersive learning didn’t stop when they left the office and returned home. Participants had to continue to ‘live’ with IBD at home, helping them connect with the challenges in daily social and family interactions, not just in the workplace.

Our study has been the first to evaluate these different impacts of enhanced empathy, demonstrating improvements in learning, understanding, motivation and engagement. In a world where the ‘empathy deficit’ is a prevalent topic, it’s valuable to reflect on how we might use digital tools to help us step into someone’s skin – and what personal and professional successes this new perspective might offer.