Beginning a Conversation on Teaching About Empathy in Practice


  • Kirsty Hughes The University of Edinburgh
  • Eva Joanna Alexjuk
  • Jessie Paterson
  • Rachel Whittington
  • Stacy Spielman



interdisciplinary research, teaching, empathy, health professions


This ‘On the Horizon’ paper presents insights from a small interdisciplinary project exploring student perspectives on the role of empathy in professional training and practice. Using a qualitative methodology, this study provides some initial thoughts around four areas identified by the researchers. All the students, from veterinary, nursing and dementia health studies, defined empathy using classic definitions similar to those published in academic literature, but some with more in practice experience showed how this had modified over time. The vet students did recognise empathy to clients as important but admitted that the animals were their first priority, which at times caused tension with how they related to the client. Even the students with limited work experience recognised that often the expression of empathy had to be balanced against time and other demands, leading to stress and in some cases a feeling of a loss in their caring ability. Role models were mentioned by the students as key influencers in their expression of empathy – one nursing student stated that they had been encouraged to “harden up” rather than outwardly express empathy. When asked about how the role of empathy in practice was taught, most of the students stated this was explicit in their programmes and they would welcome more formal discussion and time provided to this topic. The researchers are now aiming to carry out a larger study to explore this further across a number of health care professions with the aim to provide guidance to aid educators involved in teaching students in these areas.

Author Biographies

Eva Joanna Alexjuk

Eva Joanna (Jo) Alexjuk is an e-learning Lecturer and Researcher in Dementia in Counselling, Psychotherapy and Applied Social Science, School of Health in Social Science, The University of Edinburgh, Doorway 6, Medical Quad, Teviot Place, Edinburgh EH8 9AG. Email: Specific interests include:  e-learning experiences of national and international students relating to policy and practice in dementia care.

Jessie Paterson

Jessie Paterson is a Lecturer in Student Learning at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush Veterinary Centre, Roslin, Midlothian, EH25 9RG. Email: Special interests include: student academic support, professional skills and staff development.

Rachel Whittington

Rachel Whittington is a Lecturer in Professional Skills at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush Veterinary Centre, Roslin, Midlothian, EH25 9RG. Email; Special interests include student wellbeing and resilience.

Stacy Spielman

Stacy Spielman is an Honorary Fellow in Veterinary Medical Education at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, Easter Bush Campus, Midlothian EH25 9RG. Email: Specific interests include professional skills, peer support, emotional intelligence and resilience.


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On the Horizon