Learning empathy to resolve core health and social needs

Faculty of Medicine
Experiential learning
Group of students working together at a table with a teacher.
Dr. Isabelle Giroux, director, School of Nutrition Sciences, at the Faculty of Health Sciences, and an Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa volunteer, facilitates a group discussion with students.
This year, the offices of Social Accountability and Francophone Affairs at the Faculty of Medicine partnered with the Alliance to End Homelessness Ottawa (ATEHO) to facilitate, for the first time, an experiential learning activity called The Empathy Project. This activity was co-designed by ATEHO and people with lived experience of homelessness.

For two weeks, students experienced a simulated “day-in-the-life” of an individual seeking to meet core health and social needs such as housing, employment, legal aid, food and income support. The volunteers included ATEHO team members, people with lived experience, individuals from the wider Ottawa community and members of the Faculty of Medicine.

“The power of this exercise lies in helping people understand system barriers faced by people experiencing homelessness. Homelessness is a policy failure, not a personal one. When we focus on the policies and systems that lead to homelessness, we help to build a different way of seeing solutions.”―  Kaite Burkholder Harris, executive director, ATEHO

“Our medical graduates will work with other health and social service professionals in their future clinical practices. As an institution, we recognize that our greatest potential for social impact comes from collaborating with our community.” ― Dr. Claire Kendall, associate dean, social accountability

From traditional to experimental learning

Held in English and French, the activity was compulsory for all first-year medical students and optional for students from the faculties of Health Sciences and Law. In previous years, students listened to panellists discussing social accountability in medicine, but the Faculty wanted to strengthen student learning by introducing an experiential opportunity both for community members and students.

Students reported that this activity was engaging and taught them how poverty affects health in ways that are relevant to their future education and clinical practice. They expressed many emotions concerning what they observed and felt during the session, including empathy, frustration and surprise — emotions that match those of people seeking daily to resolve core health and social needs.

Faculty’s social accountability mandate

The impetus for the project stemmed from the Faculty of Medicine’s social accountability mandate, a commitment to meet the needs of the community the Faculty is meant to serve. This means working with the community, constantly reimagining how future graduates will provide better care. This is why an educational environment that fosters an understanding of our community’s health and social situation is crucial.

The Faculty hopes that this activity will inform the design and delivery of interprofessional activities, demonstrate the potential value of such partnerships for other medical schools, and, most importantly, help it graduate socially accountable health professionals.

Article by Christine Mathew in collaboration with the Faculty of Medicine.