Original Article

Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 22, Issue 8, pp 1114-1118

First online:

Using Theater to Teach Clinical Empathy: A Pilot Study

  • Alan W. DowAffiliated withDepartment of Internal Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University Email author 
  • , David LeongAffiliated withDepartment of Theater, Virginia Commonwealth University
  • , Aaron AndersonAffiliated withDepartment of Theater, Virginia Commonwealth University
  • , Richard P. WenzelAffiliated withDepartment of Internal Medicine, Virginia Commonwealth University
  • , VCU Theater-Medicine Team*

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Clinical empathy, a critical skill for the doctor–patient relationship, is infrequently taught in graduate medical education. No study has tested if clinical empathy can be taught effectively.


To assess whether medicine residents can learn clinical empathy techniques from theater professors.


A controlled trial of a clinical empathy curriculum taught and assessed by 4 theater professors.


Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Virginia, a large urban university and health system.


Twenty Internal Medicine residents: 14 in the intervention group, 6 in the control group.


Six hours of classroom instruction and workshop time with professors of theater.


Scores derived from an instrument with 6 subscores designed to measure empathy in real-time patient encounters. Baseline comparisons were made using two-sample T tests. A mixed-effects analysis of variance model was applied to test for significance between the control and intervention groups.


The intervention group demonstrated significant improvement (p ≤ .011) across all 6 subscores between pre-intervention and post-intervention observations. Compared to the control group, the intervention group had better posttest scores in 5 of 6 subscores (p ≤ .01).


The study was neither randomized nor blinded.


Collaborative efforts between the departments of theater and medicine are effective in teaching clinical empathy techniques.


doctor–patient relationships medical education communication skills