Developing compassion and empathy as part of a Professional Ethics module

I’ve been spending some time this week working with our 4th year students in the Professional Ethics module. One of our biggest challenges is that our students (and most other students in healthcare programmes) see characteristics like compassion, empathy, courage, shame, and emotional response as something that they need to “have”, like a stethoscope or comfortable shoes. I’m trying to get them to see that these are really “ways of being”. Being a caring person isn’t part of your job, it’s a part of who you are. Perceiving and responding to the suffering of others isn’t something that a professional code of conduct can help you with.

I’ve been trying to explore these ideas using music and videos in the classroom, along with reflective writing exercises and, as I’m such a big fan of two of the videos I used recently, I thought I’d share them here.

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  • To err is human: building a safer health system. Free book for download http://tinyurl.com/yzedbwk #
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  • @Czernie Thanks Laura, there’s some good stuff there, will definitely use some of it #
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TEDx Johanessburg (session 1) – Hennie Eksteen

Here are some interesting facts about earthworms:

  • They have no immune system…or teeth
  • The more rotten their food is, the better
  • They are the most numerous animals on earth
  • They lay cocoons every day or so
  • Earthworms create, purify and sanitise soil

OK, this is interesting but nothing I can’t get from Wikipedia.

I’m in two minds about this presentation.  I enjoyed it thoroughly but to me it didn’t seem to fit in with the theme of the conference…community upliftment.  Yes, earthworms are a great source of organic fertiliser that increase crop yields and are good for the environment.

But I was under the impression that presenters at TEDx must have done something to improve their small corner of the world.  Professor Eksteen has studied earthworms and clearly knows a lot about them.  He’s presented some interesting facts about how earthworms can be good for agriculture, but hasn’t done anything besides be an academic who studies earthworms.  Or maybe I missed something…?

As I said, this was interesting, but was it an idea worth spreading?

TEDx Johanessburg (session 1) – Mark Anthony Zimmerman

“The universe is made of stories”

Mark began by using the example of trisecting a banana with his finger to highlight the point that each of us possesses a hidden knowledge, although I wasn’t quite sure what the nature of that knowledge was, or how it related to the focus of the talk i.e. the “Broccoli project”

The Broccoli project is about giving people things that matter to them in exchange for positive social behaviour.  “Social objects and value exchange”, or “getting something you want or need for doing something that you do anyway”, as opposed to loyalty programmes that give you more stuff you didn’t know you needed. One of the examples on the home page right now is to incentivise people to go for HIV testing, which is obviously a hugely important first step in fighting the disease.

Side note: I hate loyalty programmes.  If you want me to be loyal to whatever your brand is, give me a good product/service at a reasonable cost.  Treat me like a human being, not a consumer or a set of eyeballs that you can manipulate to increase sales.

Mark highlighted the point that aid programmes are a 100 billion dollar industry, but about 80% goes missing because of corruption, mismanagement, etc.  He also made the point that weapons programmes will get 5 times more money than aid programmes.  This says a lot about our collective value systems.  If government is the voice of the people, and this is what government is saying, then we have to accept that it’s what we (the people) are saying.

This project is a great example of ordinary South Africans doing extra-ordinary things.

TEDx Johanessburg (session 1) – Iain Thomas

The first session at TEDx Johannesburg began with Iain Thomas, the author of ambiguous micro stories at I wrote this for you. Here’s the site tagline, which is great:
“I need you to understand something. I wrote this for you. I wrote this for you and only you. Everyone else who reads it, doesn’t get it. They may think they get it, but they don’t. This is the sign you’ve been looking for. You were meant to read these words.” Apparently there is a whole ecosystem of micro-story writers, this is the first I’ve heard of it.  I love the idea.

“We are a generation that consumes media in smaller and smaller chunks.”  I think of Twitter and the effect it has on my own concentration / focus / reflection?  It’s difficult to identify relevant data from an endless stream, focus on it, extract meaningful information and make use of that.  Should I slow down?  How?  Why?  Can I afford to?

Iain creates very short stories by leaving out the small details (e.g. age, gender, etc.) and having the reader fill in the gaps.  “There’s no story I can tell you that’s more powerful than the one you tell yourself”.

“We are not the unique snowflakes we are told we are, we are all of us the same.”  I love this sentence.  It makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger, but at the same time I think that each of us is unique.  But the aggregation of the whole “flattens” us out and makes the sum of the parts seem more uniform.  I like the idea of simplicity (the group) through complexity (the individual).

“This is your life and it’s ending one minute at a time” (from Fight club).  Inspiring quote to motivate one to get on with it.

“I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, I don’t want fish, I want you.”  I came across a variation of this a few years ago (I forget where)…I don’t care how many fish there are in the sea, if I’m a mackerel and you’re a herring, it won’t help either of us.

Iain Thomas at TEDx Johannesburg

Iain got me thinking about stories and the important role of stories in our lives.  We all learned through stories when we were younger, and then for some reason, most of us stop telling them.  Maybe it has something to do with the creativity that’s “educated” out of us (Sir Ken Robinson).  I remember growing up fascinated with fables, myths and science fiction, yet most of what I read now is either academic or non-fiction.   I just finished reading Randy Pausch’sThe last lecture“, based on his last lecture at Carnegie Mellon, where he also talks about the importance of stories in our lives.

I like the idea of using stories as vehicles that we can use to carry concepts and principles.  Kind of like sneaking the idea in there, or learning without realising that you’re learning.  I often tell my students that their patient documentation can be thought of as a story…the story of this patient and their condition/injury.  Just like a story has a logical sequence and structure (beginning, middle and end), so too should an assessment have structure.  What are the logical patterns we can use to best convey the story of this patient and our role as physiotherapists in that story?

For the past few months I’ve been trying to get my head around the idea of complexity through simplicity, and this concept of ambiguous micro-stories seems to resonate with that idea.  It’s something that I worked hard on for my doctoral proposal, although I based it on a variation of one of Einstein’s quotes that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”.  For me, Iain’s stories fall into this category of creating stories that can be incredibly complex, but only through incredible simplification.

TEDx Johannesburg is over, so what now?

OK, so TEDx Johannesburg is over, now what? On the flight home I found myself thinking: “OK, that was great and I feel inspired. So what? What do I need to do to make the whole thing worthwhile? Because if I went and saw ordinary people doing extraordinary things and I do nothing as a result, what was the point?”

So now I get to go over my notes and try to make sense of all the cool things I heard and experienced. I’m going to try and think a little bit more deeply about what each of the presentations that moved me actually meant in terms of who I am and what I’m trying to do with my life. I’ll post my notes from each presentation, together with my thoughts on it. Bear in mind that the collection of posts that results is really not for anything other than a way for me to reflect on what happened, and to try and figure out how to move forward with that.  If it happens to be interesting or something more for anyone else who was (or wasn’t) there, then that’s great.

I’m going to push it out by individual presentation over the next week or so, so that it’s more manageable for me to work with, and which also splits the content into discrete chunks that are easier to read. If you presented and don’t see your work here, please don’t be hurt. Not everyone can be all things to all people, and I think the idea that each of us found every presentation to be a life changing experience isn’t really realistic. And besides, you can take solace in the thought that I’m just a small-time blogger, and that you at least got to present at TEDx 🙂  For me at least, the whole was definitely greater than the sum of the parts.

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TEDx Johannesburg

I’ve been a longtime fan of the TED conferences and found out last night about the TEDx conference being held in Johannesburg in a few weeks time.  The theme is “Uplifting communities“, which ties in nicely with the project proposal I submitted to FAIMER last month (see previous post).  So I decided to apply as a speaker for the conference, using the same ideas on innovation in education using emerging technologies.

You can see my speaker profile here.