Newswise — Eliminating racial inequity demands empathy and compassion, but also social justice.

The newest center within the T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at UC San Diego will have that focus, created to identify, understand and resolve social justice issues in health care that primarily affect racial and ethnic minorities, women, LGBTQ and under-privileged communities.

“Across this country and throughout society, we face extraordinary challenges regarding racial injustice, especially those impacting marginalized members of our communities,” said Gentry Patrick, PhD, a professor of neurobiology in the Division of Biological Sciences and the newly named director of the Center for Empathy and Social Justice in Human Health within the Sanford Institute.

“Health care is not exempt. Indeed, building social justice within health care is absolutely critical to our well-being as individuals and as a society. It requires, of course, advancing the ideals of empathy and compassion, but it also means effectively parsing their neurobiological underpinnings so that we can translate that empirical research into effective, beneficial social practices.

“But how do we do that if we do not expand and deepen the presence and participation of those most afflicted? We need to better attract underrepresented minorities, i.e. Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) into the fields of science, medicine and technology, which fuel and sustain modern health care. We need to train young people to build a new and better world that looks more like them.”

It is no easy task, said Patrick. It demands action, clear-eyed and carefully planned.

“We have seen how the disadvantaged suffer; we have learned all too well about at least some of the everyday indignities that confront them. We hear their collective voices calling for change and it is no longer enough to claim awareness and extend kind gestures, but otherwise sit on the sidelines, an act of complicity.”

Patrick said the overarching mission of the new center will be to erect the foundations and provide the impetus for creating new generations of well-trained professionals in science, technology, education and medicine (STEM), drawn from currently underrepresented minorities. He noted current STEM efforts are mixed and often falling short: According to a 2019 survey by the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5 percent of practicing physicians in the United States are Black. In contrast, Blacks comprise almost 14 percent of the total U.S. population.

Success, said Patrick, will involve sequential and concurrent steps, beginning with public conversations to define disparities and engage a diverse community of scholars and health care workers in finding necessary remedies.

It will involve collaborating with and leveraging the work and resources of the other Institute centers, and partnering with researchers across UC San Diego, in the schools of medicine, pharmacy and public health and in divisions across campus.

“The center will support neuroscience-based approaches into the neurobiology of empathy and compassion, especially with respect to addressing the brain basis of self-identity and the biological and social bases for discrimination and racism,” states the center’s foundational white paper.

There will be efforts to inform educators about curricular design and training in health care to convert research into practices that combat racism, and reframe the debate about health care disparities in terms of empathy and social justice.

“This will require many facets of human endeavor,” said Patrick, “and the participation of faculty across many disciplines. But most importantly, it must focus on increased awareness, knowledge, access and success of underserved and under-represented minorities in STEM and health care professions.”

Multiple Centers

The Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion was established in 2019 with a $100 million gift from South Dakota businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, who had earlier donated to the creation of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center in 2013 and the Sanford Consortium of Regenerative Medicine in 2008.

“I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” said Sanford at the institute’s launch. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision. Doctors work in a world where compassion is essential, but often lost in the harsh realities of modern medicine. If we can help medical professionals preserve and promote their compassion, based on the findings of hard science, the world can be a happier, healthier place.”

In the roughly two years since its beginning, the institute has taken root, building out its mission and infrastructure, bringing together the necessary parts and people — much of it in the midst of a global pandemic.

“If ever there has been a moment in history that highlighted humanity’s need for empathy and compassion, this last year was it,” said William Mobley, MD, PhD, the Institute’s interim director and professor of neurosciences.

Apart from the new Center for Empathy and Social Justice in Human Health under Patrick, there are five other centers:

  • The Center for Compassionate Communication, headed by Evonne Kaplan-Liss, MD, MPH, focuses on developing evidence-based training in interpersonal communication in health care.

    “Effective communication between health care providers and patients is the centerpiece of compassionate health care,” said Liss. “It’s communication that embraces and uses the personal stories of those involved, that comes from listening, awareness, clarity and connection on all sides. Improving how we speak and listen to each other benefits everyone.”

  • The Center for Empathy and Compassion Training in Medical Education, directed by Lisa Eyler, PhD, professor in the UC San Diego School of Medicine Department of Psychiatry, seeks to develop, evaluate and disseminate educational programs to enhance empathy and compassion throughout medical training.

    “We want to create a ‘doctor’s bag’ of strategies to express and maintain compassion towards others and wellness-boosting skills to promote resilience and a humanistic approach in medical students that will remain throughout their careers,” said Eyler.

  • The Center for Empathy and Technology is directed by Cinnamon S. Bloss, PhD, associate professor in the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science. Her center looks at how emerging biomedical and information technologies promote or undermine empathy, compassion and well-being for both provider and patient.

    “We want to be a leader at the intersection of empathy and technological innovation, supporting research and developing education programs that provide guidance for the empathic practice of medicine with new technologies,” Bloss said.

  • The Center for Mentorship in Medicine: Master Clinician Program, headed by Christopher R. Cannavino, MD, associate professor of clinical pediatrics and director of the Pediatric Medical Student Education program in the UC San Diego School of Medicine, is dedicated to creating novel education programs that improve clinical training.

    “There is a science and art to practicing medicine,” said Cannavino. “We want to train future physicians by connecting them with mentors — experienced master clinicians — who can model empathetic, compassionate care.”

  • The Center for Research on Empathy and Compassion, headed by Douglas Nitz, PhD, professor and chair in the Department of Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, funds both basic and applied research exploring the neural underpinnings of empathy and compassion and how these discoveries can be applied to changing behaviors in health care training and practice.

    The Center has already provided a number of seed grants for projects, ranging from using imaging to trace empathy to distinct regions of the brain and the effect of compassion meditation on brain function to meditation practices to reduce physician burnout and in families with child mental illness and helping doctors compassionately discuss chronic pain with patients.

“It will take all of us, working together, to achieve success,” said Patrick. “We intend to participate in no less than a transformation of the world into a just and healthy place for all members of society.”