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ADVANCE Perspective: Physical Therapy & Rehab Medicine

Empathy in the Curriculum

Published February 18, 2016 9:45 PM by Dillon Stickle

ANAHEIM, CA -- As most of you know, the APTA Combined Sections Meeting (CSM) is underway, and ADVANCE is excited to be here to cover the happenings of the nation's largest conference for physical therapy. According to the CSM website, this year's conference has brought over 10,000 professionals from all around the country to join in learning and celebrating the physical therapy profession, and to hear from veteran PTs speaking on various topics.

The first notable session was the Linda Crane Memorial Lecture, named after one of the first PTs to be certified in a specialty by the APTA. The speaker was Julie Ann Star, PT, DPT, CCS, clinical associate professor at Boston University and physical therapist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medial Center in Boston, MA. The title of her lecture was "The Science of Healing. The Art of Caring. #heartofthematter."

Star told stories of her days as a PT, and as a healthcare professional in general. She told the story of the Boston Marathon bombing, and how when push came to shove, every single healthcare professional there that day stepped up to the plate. Star asked a question to the audience; a thought-provoking question: Which way will you run? She said that the responsibility of the professional is to run toward the danger; after all, the core idea of healthcare is to help people who are sick or hurt.

Star followed these stories with an idea that maybe the curriculum of PT schools didn't involve enough learning of empathy, compassion, and communication. This was the "art" of physical therapy. She shared a shocking study that showed in the last 10 years, empathy in DPT students has dropped dramatically. She pondered: "If the art of PT is to ensure the highest standard of excellence, then we need to be intentional about it. Are we teaching this in our curriculum?"

At the end of the lecture, Star told a memory of the week after the bombing, when her friend asked, "Isn't the younger brother alive and being treated at your hospital?" After Star replied, "yes," her friend asked, "Well, you're not going to help take care of him, are you?"

 Star looked to the audience and challenged: "would you?"

 We will be covering a lot more at #APTACSM in the next couple days and are excited to see what else the conference has in store. Check in with us for more updates, and be sure to follow us on Facebook (Advance for Physical Therapy and Rehab Medicine) and Twitter (@AdvanceforPT)!


I agree with Julie Star that the "art" of physical therapy comes into play with our communication skills, ability to empathize, and how we demonstrate compassion to our patients. These are often skills that are difficult to teach someone, as compared to the practical PT skills we learn in school such as examination and interventions. I know that in our DPT curriculum at East Carolina University, professors emphasize empathy in classes such as psychosocial aspects of patient care where we discuss how to consider the many factors that play a role in someone's recovery or in our health promotions class where we learn strategies for health literacy with patient education and focusing on patient-first language. I also believe DPT programs that ensure they are sending students on good clinical rotations with CIs who operate by an ethical and moral compass and demonstrate examples of how to provide compassion to all patients regardless of circumstances goes further than any classroom lecture. I have been fortunate to learn from some of the best. I already feel like I was a compassionate person before I started PT school, as are most who desire to help others, but I can certainly say I was humbled by my interactions with professors, classmates, and patients over the last 3 years, and I am a much better clinician and person now. It is our responsibility to never stop learning and growing professionally or personally. I think all it takes for schools to include these principles in their curriculum and instill the "art" of physical therapy in the minds of students and future leaders of our profession is to be intentional about it, like Julie said.

Rachel, SPT April 1, 2017 10:16 PM

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