Developing a new empathy-specific admissions test for applicants to medical schools: A discourse-pragmatic approach


  • Gabrina Pounds University of East Anglia
  • Charlotte Salter University of East Anglia
  • Mary Jane Platt University of East Anglia
  • Pauline Bryant University of East Anglia



admissions test, empathy, empathic speech acts, medical education, pragmatics


The ability to empathise with patients is an important professional skill for doctors. Medical students practise this skill as part of their medical education, and are tested on their use of empathy within their final examination. Evidence shows that appropriate training makes a difference but that natural aptitude also plays a role. Most medical schools, therefore, probe applicants’ basic understanding of empathy at admissions interviews. The purpose of the project presented in this paper was to apply existing understanding of how empathy may be communicated in a clinical context (building on a literature review by Pounds [2011]) to develop a new empathy-specific medical admissions interview station, probing applicants’ empathic communicative performance (not just theoretical knowledge) and fitting the widely used Multiple Mini Interview (MMI) format. The paper outlines how this tool was developed, trialled and implemented by: (1) conceptualising empathic communication in discourse-pragmatic terms – that is, as a set of specific but context-dependant empathic speech acts; and (2) formulating and trialling a written and two oral versions of a situational test, capable of probing the applicants’ ability to communicate empathically in everyday conversation and suitable for use at Norwich Medical School and other similar educational institutions.

Author Biographies

Gabrina Pounds, University of East Anglia

Gabrina Pounds received her PhD in Linguistics from the University of East Anglia, where she is currently Senior Lecturer of Applied Linguistics. Her research interests include attitudinal expression, subjectivity and emotion in news discourse and the communication of empathy and patient-centredness in medical consultations and other professional exchanges.

Charlotte Salter, University of East Anglia

Charlotte Salter has a PhD in Health and Social Care from the University of East Anglia and is currently Senior Lecturer in Consultation Skills at Norwich Medical School. She specialises in researching areas of health and social care of importance to older people. Her related research interests include sociology of diagnosis, healthcare communication and empathy.

Mary Jane Platt, University of East Anglia

Mary Jane Platt is Clinical Professor in Medical Education with research interests in perinatal and paediatric epidemiology, particularly cerebral palsy. She is currently Teaching Director and Director of Admissions at Norwich Medical School and her teaching interests include selection and recruitment of health care students and medical education.

Pauline Bryant, University of East Anglia

Pauline Bryant is a General Practitioner in Norfolk and Clinical Senior Lecturer and Associate Tutor at Norwich Medical School, where she leads the Problem Based Learning (PBL) programme. She is currently completing a doctorate in education (EdD) on the exploration of factors affecting communication in brainstorming in PBL at Norwich Medical School.


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How to Cite

Pounds, G., Salter, C., Platt, M. J., & Bryant, P. (2018). Developing a new empathy-specific admissions test for applicants to medical schools: A discourse-pragmatic approach. Communication and Medicine, 14(2), 165–180.