Five minutes with Paul Bennett: Teaching Empathy

26 November 2019
Enhancing student learning experience with stimulation tool
Paul Bennett from the Rural Clinical School (Broken Hill) gives students a glimpse into the experiences of people who are older or have a disability, through the Empathy Suit.

What inspired you to base your career in Broken Hill?

After being a Registered Nurse for 34 years, I moved to Broken Hill with my family to take up a management role in the former Far West Local Health Service. I joined the Broken Hill University Department of Rural Health 13 years ago as a nurse academic. The work here is rewarding because I can, in a small way, influence the thinking of future health professionals around primary health care, art in health and rural/remote health care.

My colleagues here are committed to rural/remote health and education, and the school is always looking for ways to improve health outcomes in the community through a range of long term local initiatives.

How did the Empathy Suit come about?

The Empathy Suit was developed by members of our team as a simulation tool. We created it to give undergraduates a better understanding of the day-to-day lives of older people, or people with disabilities. The suit gives the wearer an opportunity for a brief time, to experience not only the physical effects of ageing or disability, but also a glimpse into the social isolation that can occur to individuals.

We have used the Empathy Suit for more than 10 years as part of the Enhanced Rural Interprofessional Cultural Health (ENRICH) program and run a full-day simulation three times a year. During the simulation, undergraduates go out into the community so they can experience real-life situations, such as shopping, going to the post office or hairdresser, or paying a bill at the local council.

What do students get out of wearing the suit?

Some health professionals who begin their studies have limited experience with people who are older, or who are living with a disability and have complex health needs. The Empathy Suit provides the wearer with an experiential learning opportunity. This is a powerful tool for critically thinking about and reflecting on their current or future practice.

The simulation gives the wearer an experience that increases understanding. With that understanding can come empathy and compassion, which we hope will lead to better health care and better health outcomes for our older people and people with disabilities who come into contact with health care professionals.

Do you have any plans to commercialise the Empathy Suit?  

It has been a great pleasure working with Anna Noonan, Emma-Louise Hunsley and the team in Commercial Development and Industry Partnerships. Their guidance and support have been instrumental in getting us to the point where the Empathy Suits can be commercialised. We hope the healthcare industry takes up the opportunity to use the suits as part of their regular training regime for staff.

Who inspires you?

My colleagues at Broken Hill. They are committed to working with our community partners to provide the best possible learning environment for undergraduates from every health discipline across all the universities who send their students to far west NSW for placement.

The rural communities also inspire me. In my travels I have met a lot of dedicated health professionals who live and work in country towns. Their commitment inspires me to try harder at what I do, and to always include local people in the development  of new programs. Finding out what is important to them is the first step in developing successful new programs.

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned from your students?

One of the most valuable things I’ve learned is that they are dedicated to their future professions. They are willing to study and give up a lot of things in their lives to become recognised health professionals and to graduate in their specific disciplines. They have a lot of new knowledge that needs support and guidance. Ultimately these developing skills, knowledge and attitude will help our communities to have better health outcomes.