You can’t teach compassion, can you?

Dr Petrina Barson, Honorary Fellow in the Department of General Practice, has been teaching Compassion Cultivation to MD students at the Western Clinical School since 2015, and she has always thought this is an odd question.

“People rarely dispute the possibility of someone’s compassion being diminished by the wrong kind of training or environment, so it seems strange to me that we doubt the possibility that the right kind of training could enhance someone’s innate compassion” she said. “The more difficult question, I suppose, is how that could be done”.

A team in the Department of Medical Education, the Department of General Practice, and the Western Clinical School, is attempting to answer this question. In 2015, Assoc Prof Stephen Lew, Director of Medical Education at the Western Clinical School, invited Petrina to teach Compassion Cultivation to his students out of a desire to produce graduates who are not only compassionate, but also resilient.

The 5-week course (10 contact hours), currently being delivered to all MD3 students during their aged care term, is based on the Compassion Cultivation Training devised by CCARE - the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford University. Tutorials include pedagogy about compassion for self and others – its facilitators and inhibitors, small group discussion and sharing, experiential exercises in pairs to enable exploration of students’ personal experience of the concepts being discussed, and meditation. The course explores and practises various capacities which support compassion for self and others, including mindfulness, empathy, loving, kindness and the awareness of common humanity.

Students have evaluated this course very highly, and qualitative feedback has suggested transformative learning. To further understand its effects, Stephen and Petrina, along with Jennifer Schwarz from the Western Clinical School and Clare Delany from the DME, recently applied for and received a Learning and Teaching Initiative Grant of $20,000 from the University to teach and research this program over two years. With others from the DME and the DGP, they have begun a formal evaluation, using well validated measures of compassion, self-compassion, and wellbeing. Focus groups will be conducted to further explore its lived effects, and the grant will extend to supporting a symposium on Educating for Empathy and Compassion in 2019.