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Thomas Jefferson University, in Collaboration with ARTZ Philadelphia and Theater of Witness, Awarded Grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage for Empathy Program


PHILADELPHIA — Thomas Jefferson University, in collaboration with ARTZ Philadelphia and Theater of Witness, was awarded a $300,000 grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to build on Jefferson’s growing humanities program which fosters empathy, comfort with ambiguity and the recognition of one’s own limits among health professions students.

The two-year project will build on ARTZ@Jefferson, a year-old collaboration between Thomas Jefferson University and ARTZ Philadelphia, in which people living with dementia and their care partners become mentors to Jefferson health professions students. Now, this Pew-funded expansion will join artists, medical students, people living with dementia and their care partners in a creative process of empathy-building, storytelling and relationship-forming that will culminate in an original theater performance work. Furthering Jefferson’s development of creative instruction at the intersection of art, healthcare and wellness, the program is guided by the principle that the arts provide a rich context for applying habits of emotional intelligence that are essential to the successful practice of medicine.

“Thomas Jefferson University is deeply committed to exploring innovative, arts-based methods for sustaining empathy,” said Megan Voeller, Director of Humanities at Thomas Jefferson University. “We believe that medicine is a performative and relational art as well as a science, and that empathy is a process of authentic dialogue and relationship-building that cannot be taught through textbooks.”

Thomas Jefferson University is partnering with two Philadelphia-based organizations on the grant. Together, the team is building an integrated curriculum that will identify and weave together common themes that run through all of the program’s experiences. Through ARTZ Philadelphia, approximately 80 people living with dementia and their care partners will become mentors to students by engaging in a series of intimate conversations generated by arts-based experiences and punctuated by facilitated learning sessions. The course is designed to engage students in first understanding people as people and only second as patients.

Working with Theater of Witness, which produces testimonial performances, students will practice deep listening and develop autobiographic and partner pieces within the classroom setting. Teya Sepinuck, founder and artistic director, will lead listening circles of students who will engage in sharing their own stories through a variety of creative processes. A select group will work with Sepinuck over an extended period of time to develop a full Theater of Witness production about what it means to become a healer.

“Our organization is committed to creating theater that gives voice to those whose stories haven’t been heard,” said Sepinuck. “We are thrilled to help Jefferson create the next generation of healers, people who listen through their hearts as well as their stethoscopes.”

Susan Shifrin, Ph.D., is director of ARTZ@Jefferson and founding director of ARTZ Philadelphia, which provides art-making and conversation programs for people with dementia and their care partners, some of whom will serve as mentors to the participating students.

“There is only one set of experts when it comes to living with dementia – the person with dementia and their care partner. Our program provides a safe, mutually-respectful forum where the stigma of dementia can be dismantled and students can learn from the experts. This upends the historically fraught relationship between people with dementia and the medical establishment,” said Shifrin. “Also, by exploring their own vulnerabilities, we hope that these future health professionals will be able to respond more authentically to others’ vulnerabilities as they move forward in their careers.”

Jefferson has a rich history of researching empathy in medicine and using humanities-based programs to cultivate emotional intelligence in students. Created at Jefferson and widely used by researchers, the Jefferson Scale of Empathy is a validated, 20-item scale that is designed to measure empathy in physicians and other practicing healthcare professionals, medical students and other health professions students. It has been translated into 47 languages and has been used in more than 70 countries. The Jefferson Scale of Empathy will be used in this project to evaluate quantitative outcomes. Qualitative outcomes will be evaluated by the expertise of an ethnographer.

“At Jefferson, we have a longstanding tradition of using humanities-based programs to educate the future healthcare teams and leaders,” said Charles Pohl, MD, Associate Provost for Student Affairs at Thomas Jefferson University and Senior Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the Sidney Kimmel Medical College. “Through the generous support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, our program not only has the opportunity to develop the necessary qualities such as empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, team-based learning, communication skills to provide high quality care, but also enable our students to be mentored and learn from people with chronic disease as well as create a space for the voices of people with dementia, artists and healthcare students to be heard.”

Media Contact:
Gail Benner