If nothing else, becoming a patient in the health care system can be an unfamiliar and sometimes unsettling process. No matter how well you know the steps, trust the players, and value your experience, the unknown factors produce stress in the best of circumstances.

When Martina Raquel Gallagher, PhD, MSN, RN, assistant professor and director of Global Health Programs at the UTHealth School of Nursing, thought about how her nursing students could make the hospital and health care experience better for their patients, she came up with an unlikely method.

With teaching empathy foremost in her mind, Gallagher turned to an age-old partnership to develop those skills—the Argentine tango.

Such a novel approach not only worked, but Gallagher discovered it relieved stress in her nursing students as well. And learning compassion by experiencing different situations out of a student’s typical comfort zone builds a kindness and compassion into all interactions, she says.

“Using Argentine tango as a way of teaching empathy to students was a serendipitous result of a team building activity meant to provide students with a simulation of leading and following in a team,” says Gallagher. “The first time I delivered the activity and I did the debriefing on the experience of the followers, the students expressed the loss of control and anxiety in following with their eyes closed.”

Gallagher, who’s a qualitative researcher by training, says she noticed a pattern in what her students said and compared it to what patients go through in a hospital setting. In making a point about empathy, Gallagher taught her students that that very feeling of loss of control and unease is what they need to minimize for their patients. By understanding the patient’s feelings, the nursing students are more able to identify what their patients really need and not what they think their patients need.

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“Understanding a patient’s experience allows a nurse to create interventions tailored to the emotional, mental, and spiritual needs of a patient,” says Gallagher.

“I see empathy as being aware of a person’s experiences by ‘walking in their shoes,’” says Gallagher. “This skill of awareness is something that occurs over time and as an individual matures emotionally. Delivering simulated learning activities where students can experience what patients undergo and feel can be used to help nursing students learn empathy.”

As Gallagher received positive feedback, her program has grown to not only be offered in her community clinical every semester, but also even as a short class to help students relax during a lunch break. They can laugh, dance, and bond—producing, as Gallagher says, levels of emotionally calming oxytocin.

“Students enjoy the activity because it brings a different way of learning,” says Gallagher. “They also enjoy the laughter they share as they are learning.”

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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