Acting Empathy Applied to Health Sciences

Written by Erik DeCicco & Bill J. Adams |

All of us in theatre understand the necessity of being able to walk in someone else’s shoes to develop good characters, and it’s not a stretch to assume that empathy towards these characters helps us portray characters more believably. Empathy is an acting skill that has some very important applications outside of a normal dramatic context.  Understanding empathy and being able to use it can provide a clear glimpse at the power of theatre, but how can acting contribute to the training of a nurse or a doctor? What is the ripple effect of this work?  Do actors have the potential to help save lives by making healthcare professionals more effective at their work? The answer is a resounding yes!

One way actors can apply their empathy skill is by learning about healthcare simulations and becoming a standardized patient (SP). Scenes in healthcare training are called simulations, and the plot focuses on medical issues ranging from heart attacks to bi-polar disorder. The SP plays various roles in the simulations, usually patients, family members, or caregivers, and the focus is on giving standardized feedback to healthcare students in training. Empathetic response develops in these simulations as students playing SPs see themselves in the student nurses and doctors with whom they are training. Theatre students naturally lean into the empathy training especially knowing the stakes of the patient they are playing and the importance of the work for healthcare students.

Theatre faculty are likely familiar with requests from many university training programs asking for students to help out in the healthcare sciences acting as patients. In the true spirit of interdisciplinary initiative, Jacksonville University launched Acting for Health Sciences in the Spring of 2017 and Nova Southeastern University began offering Healthcare Theatre in January 2020.  Both programs are fortunate to have administrative support to help with cross-listing complexities, course load complications, and collaborating across multiple university health sciences programs: nursing, communication science and disorders, mental health, and occupational therapy, and more. Operating these courses is a bit like producing theatre – fostering positive collaboration while applying work and executing complex logistics – but between many, very different departments and colleges.

JU Course Design Logo by Ale Nunez

The course at JU is a true mix of lecture, practical application, creative exploration, research, and simulation.  It was developed in collaboration with simulation and medical humanities faculty and even won a grant that helped cover the cost of startup. After a few theatre games and practice simulations in the first two weeks, NSU’s class moves into actual “performance” with events such as the Health Professions Reach Day where over 1000 healthcare students participate in interprofessional simulations. Now students practice simulations on Zoom and develop tele-presence for the eventual tele-health visits many will provide to their patients as healthcare providers.

What kind of student takes this class?  Theatre majors, actors and technicians, and disciplines of all kinds: music, dance, communications, nursing, psychology, sports business, kinesiology, economics, and many students going into the healthcare sciences. The work is great for fostering innovative collaboration between students of polar disciplines – imagine the nursing major giving feedback on the performance of the acting major in an effort to better perform a simulation – but the concepts are reversible because the actors and theatre makers are not only learning how to craft theatre in applied circumstances, but doctors, nurses, and other healthcare providers are learning from actors how to be more empathetic in practice.

It’s exciting and captivating!

There is a great deal of power in the idea of using acting empathy in healthcare simulations and ultimately in the doctor’s office, clinics and hospitals. Training students to be SPs has the potential to open a real pathway of better health for everyone, and perhaps actors should be encouraged to explore applications of theatre beyond artistic productions and studio work – this would be truly empathetic.

5 tips for Implementation of a Standardized Patient Program

  • Collaborate – Seek those interdisciplinary colleagues out on campus and make the magic!
  • Make them Show You the Money – STEAM gets lots of funding right now. Seek out your ORSPs, grant offices, and other resources. Look at financial aids to fund standardized patients, eg., work-study students.
  • Advertise – Get the students involved! Make it fun! Plan a massive training simulation for the whole campus!
  • Attend a Safety or Simulation Conference! You’ll learn a lot about this type of application of theatre!
  • Share your ideas with others – Our work is stronger together.




Written by Bill J. Adams
Bill J. Adams is associate professor and Coordinator of Performing Arts at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. He is the vice-chair of SETC’s College & University Division.

Written by Erik DeCicco
Erik DeCicco is assistant professor of theatre at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, Florida. He is a proud member of Actors’ Equity Association.

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