Medical education research demonstrates that empathic behaviour is amenable to positive change when targeted through educational programmes. This study evaluates the impact of an arts-based intervention designed to nurture learner empathy through the provision of facilitated visual literacy activities. Health Sciences students (N=19) were assigned to two learning groups: a group that participated in a visual literacy programme at the McMaster Museum of Art and a control group that participated in the normal Health Sciences curriculum. All participants completed an inter-reactivity index, which measures empathy on affective and cognitive levels, prior to and following the programme. Those individuals assigned to the visual literacy programme also completed open-ended questions concerning the programme's impact on their empathic development. The index scores were subjected to independent within-group, between-test analyses. There was no significant impact of the programme on the participants’ overall empathic response. However, sub-component analyses revealed that the programme had a significant positive effect on cognitive aspects of empathy. This finding was substantiated by the narrative reports. The study concludes that the affective focus of humanities-based education needs to be enhanced and recommends that learners are educated on the different components that comprise the overall empathic response.
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