Through the patient's eyes: using virtual reality to teach empathy to medical and nursing students

Through the patient's eyes: using virtual reality to teach empathy to medical and nursing students.

School:  Edinburgh Medical School

Team Members: Janet Skinner, Vicki McCorkell, Lorraine Close, Susie Roy, Christopher Mckenzie, Kacper Lyszkiewicz, Alan Gilchrist, Kirsty Egan, Scott Clarke, Jenni Tocher


Empathy is a fundamental attribute for healthcare professionals, yet worryingly, research suggests that empathy levels decline as students progress through their undergraduate education. This, in combination with evidence that empathy is a skill that can be taught, has resulted in recent interest in developing and delivering empathy teaching in undergraduate curricula. To address this locally, in 2018/9, we designed and ran workshops for medical and nursing students on empathy, communication and self-care. These workshops were situated in our interprofessional syllabus designed in recognition of the benefits of collaborative learning.  Discussion during the empathy sessions revealed that students were unable to truly understand patients’ inner experiences – a key construct in the concept of empathy. 

Virtual reality (VR) is an emerging technology in medical education where it can be utilised to create an impression of clinical areas.  We propose that by utilising VR to create clinical cases from a patient’s perspective, in combination with patient narratives and sensitive facilitated discussion, we can address this need for experiential learning. 

In this project students will be stratified to receive standard empathy teaching or teaching using VR and patient narratives. Validated scales will be used to measure empathy in both groups pre and post session. Behavioural aspects will be assessed in a summative examination.  Questionnaires and focus groups will be used to gather qualitative data on the feasibility and acceptability of the intervention, the overarching aim being to assess if our blended approach is an effective and acceptable means to improve healthcare students’ empathic abilities.

Final report

Download the final report (PDF)