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Recognising empathy as a cornerstone for making a meaningful impact in a post-COVID world

Recognising empathy as a cornerstone for making a meaningful impact in a post-COVID world: The Shepley Parkin Empathy Award

Emerging from a life of lockdowns has posed unique challenges, demonstrating the need for empathy and its extension into every aspect of life. I am a third-year medical student at King’s College London (KCL) and the inaugural winner of the Shepley Parkin Empathy Award. Worth £1000, the Shepley Parkin Empathy Award was developed by Stuart Parkin to honour his parents Janet Shepley and Derek Parkin who both trained at King’s in the 1950s, as well as reflect Stuart’s own recognition of the need for empathy. It is such an honour to have been selected as the first winner of this award in recognition of my work in the mental health sector and my university community. As I observe clinicians effortlessly integrate empathy into their clinical practice to optimise the delivery of patient-centred care, I am constantly reminded of its importance. Working in both a hospital and GP setting this past year I’ve seen a world where many of us are feeling more disconnected than ever. After speaking to patients, I noted this can partly be attributed to the repercussions of the pandemic, along with the increasing dominance of social media, and its role in distorting our perceptions of social connection. For these reasons the importance of empathy became increasingly clear to me. It is important to articulate the difference between empathy and sympathy to truly understand why empathy is so essential to our wellbeing. Brené Brown, research professor at the University of Houston who has studied empathy, beautifully illustrates this difference in her video for the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Brown describes “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” Contrast the following responses to someone telling you they had a miscarriage: “at least you know you can get pregnant” with “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.” To empathise, you choose vulnerability and connecting with your own experiences to form an emotional connection with someone else. To sympathise, however, we attempt to create a silver lining to reduce the personal emotional burden of a difficult conversation whilst isolating the individual experiencing their challenges.

Photo by mikoto.raw Photographer on Pexels

Prior to starting medical school, I volunteered as a Youth Programme Facilitator for the mental health charity Mind for three years, working as a Youth Mental Health First Aider. This gave me an opportunity to help deliver psychoeducation programmes, providing healthy coping strategies for young people with mental health conditions, along with the chance to meet others with similar experiences and build support networks.

During my second year of university I furthered these skills through my General Practice placement, and thanks to the support of my GP tutor, have open conversations about mental health with patients. I have seen how an empathetic approach facilitates the development of rapport between healthcare professionals and patients, increasing patient confidence in clinicians. In turn this can make difficult conversations easier, and ultimately improve the patient journey and experience.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Engaging with wider university life has always been something I have been passionate about and found immensely rewarding. As the 20/21 Sponsorship Officer for the Medical Students’ Association (MSA) at KCL, I secured over £2000 to support our work representing all medical students at the university, and built new partnerships with local businesses to support the local community.

Listening to peers and reflecting on my own experiences of virtual learning last academic year, I created collaborations between the MSA and medical education organisations to deliver free webinars during the pandemic. The goal was to support students at King’s and beyond in developing their clinical knowledge amidst the pandemic.

As someone who has received immense support from medical students further along the course, I have always strived to help others in the same way and be an approachable person that friends and colleagues can turn to. For these reasons, I was delighted to hear that some of my peers nominated me for the award!

Collectively, society has made tremendous progress in challenging outdated and inappropriate views on mental health, however, there is continuous room for improvement.

As the current MSA Vice President for Welfare, I am committed to making a lasting impact on my university community, supporting my team in breaking the stigma surrounding mental health in medical school. My goal is to ensure every student knows they are supported through welfare initiatives integrated throughout the academic year.

Having empathy is invaluable within every field of medicine and I look forward to seeing this and furthering it myself during my future placements this coming academic year and beyond.


Header Image Source: Tim Mossholder on unsplash


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