Health Scan: BGU course makes med students more empathetic

The one-week course for second-year medical students presents a holistic approach to caring for patients with cancer that goes beyond the biological aspects of the disease.

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November 23, 2014 05:09
1 minute read.
A doctor stands with stethoscope in this undated handout photo.

A doctor stands with stethoscope in this undated handout photo.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Although only some medical students pursue a career in oncology, all should have a basic understanding of the issues surrounding cancer and its treatment, according to Ben-Gurion University of the Negev researchers.

The team, led by Dr. Leeat Granek, recently published a paper on the course in the journal Academic Medicine.

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The one-week introductory clinical oncology course for second-year medical students presented a holistic approach to caring for patients with cancer that goes beyond the biological aspects of the disease.

Last year, the researchers interviewed four former students and surveyed all current students before and after they completed the course to evaluate its reception and effectiveness. Of the 86 students in the course, 77 (90 percent) completed both the pre- and post-course surveys.

After participating, more students reported being concerned about ethical issues, emotionally stirred by the course, comfortable speaking with a cancer patient about death and dying and accepting the fact that the course dealt with issues of death and loss and how to live with cancer. More students also said they feared they would cause a cancer patient to suffer through treatment yet viewed the disease optimistically.

Although these changes indicated that the complex ethical, moral, emotional and intellectual issues that are part of being an oncologist were effectively transmitted to the students, they also indicate that additional discussion around these particular issues might be necessary to avoid causing excessive anxiety and deterring the students from going into the field, the researchers said.

Israel is facing an urgent shortage of oncologists and oncology personnel.

In 2010, the ratio of newly diagnosed patients to oncologists was 24,992 cancer patients to 180 oncologists. To this figure add the thousands of cancer patients who had been treated or received follow-up or palliative care (pain relieving care for terminal disease).

“That students reported increased empathy toward cancer patients despite increased trepidation about causing them suffering is promising,” according to the researchers.

“Such courses may be one way to counteract the decrease in empathy among students as they progress through medical school. As such, medical schools might consider including this type of curriculum in their preclinical oncology studies.”


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