The Importance of Empathy in Health Care: Part 1 of the Series From Nursing Student to Patient and Back Again

In this three-part Ask the Expert Series, we feature Bhavana Aitha, a senior nursing student at the University of Delaware who explores the reciprocal benefits of working as a simulated patient while helping her university use simulated patients. In this first part of the series, Bhavana talks about the importance of Empathy. Later she will dive into The Little Things followed by Impact. Enjoy!

By: Bhavana Aitha

As a nursing student at the University of Delaware, I rarely have classes that do not involve the human body, biology, and/or chemistry. Wanting to mix things up a bit, expand my knowledge base, and challenge myself, I decided to enroll in a three-credit class called “Healthcare Theater” (HT). I had heard a little bit about what the course entails from my roommate, who told me that student actors play different patient roles for medical/psychiatric simulations, working with different healthcare providers, including nursing, nutrition, and graduate nursing students. Instead of having to interact with medical manikins, students get the opportunity to interact with real people (Cowperthwait, Saylor, & Schell, 2014). I was excited to test my abilities as an actor, but little did I realize how much of an impact this course would have on my experience as a nursing student.

Medical doctor holing senior patient's handsWith the emergence of recent technological innovations, there is an obvious lack of empathy in today’s youth. We are so glued to those tiny screens, which seem to occupy most of our time, that we often forget to build lasting and trusting relationships with our companions. I see this among my college peers and in myself. The situation creates running problems in today’s health care systems because the basic skill of communication is often missing from nursing practice.

We must remain in tune with human connection in order to form lasting and trusting relationships with our patients and with fellow health care team members. Only then will we be able to provide the highest quality care for our patients, who deserve that much and more. No amount of classroom instruction will provide students like me with these skills because they are not something you learn from reading a textbook. Only real-life experiences, or comparably simulated experiences, will give us the tools to develop our ability to communicate. By being a patient actor in simulations, I have realized how important it is to empathize with our patients as health care providers.

I find myself reflecting most heavily on the role I was assigned for the graduate nursing program as a prostitute addicted to opioids. The role of Bobby Smith consisted of my trying to obtain, from psychiatric nurse practitioners in training, drugs for my current back pain. As Bobby, I soon realized how easy it is to feel unwanted and uncared for. Some NPs made me feel as if they cared about me, but others seemed to be harshly judging my character. There were many things the nurse practitioner students did that made me feel vulnerable. For example, one male NP spoke to me as if everything that happened in my life was my fault. He began to get angry with Bobby Smith because she wanted to get the pain medication and just “get the hell out of there.” He didn’t try, even the slightest bit, to understand what Bobby was going through.

Bobby had been sexually abused as a child by a close family member and hospitalized for suicide attempts in the past. Without trying to obtain this information and attempt to empathize, the nurse practitioner student thought she was an uncooperative patient and believed yelling was the best strategy to get through to her. As the patient, I became defensive. I felt he really didn’t understand me at all, and more importantly, didn’t care to even try. He seemed to be judging the patient for her lifestyle and didn’t want to deal with her (Meyer, 2014). It was during this performance that I began to realize what all the previous NP students before him had done right. Having that one negative experience made the recognition of the positive ones so much easier.

Throughout Healthcare Theater and these patient portrayals, I have gained a greater understanding of the empathy required in our profession. I have also achieved my goal of becoming a more confident, effective communicator (Wilde, 2017). Most importantly, I am certain that what I have learned and experienced in Healthcare Theater has contributed to my ability to one day provide the best possible care for patients. It is through these simulated experiences as a patient actor that I have learned the importance of empathy as a nursing student.



Cowperthwait, A., Saylor, J., & Schell, K. (2014). Healthcare theatre: A unique simulation partnership. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 10(1), e41-e46.

Meyer, E. C. (2014). Courage, brains and heart: Lessons from the Wizard of Oz for difficult healthcare conversations. Australian Critical Care, 27(3), 108-109.

Wilde, T. (2017). Finding the lost art of empathy. New York, NY: Howard Books.


author photo.pngBhavana Aitha is currently a fourth-year nursing student at the University of Delaware.  She is pursuing an honors degree in hopes to become a future labor and delivery nurse.  She has had many simulation experiences as a student and patient actor throughout her education and intends to expose her knowledge to the nursing education community in order to better advance teaching and learning for subsequent student nurses. The standing vice president of the Multicultural Student Nurses Organization, she spends her spare time volunteering for a nonprofit organization called Lori’s Hands in efforts to provide assistive care for people with chronic illnesses in her community.



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