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Center for Empathy and Technology Seed Grant Award Recipients

Fall 2021 Awardees

Funding for this round of seed grants was disseminated in Spring 2022.

Hopetimize: Hope Enhancement Training with Mobile Application to Combat Burnout and Increase Job Satisfaction in Pediatric Oncology Staff

Principal Investigator: Dr. Dennis John Kuo


Team: Dennis John Kuo, MD, MS (PI); Vanessa Malcarne, PhD; Ben Corn, MD; P. Dvora Corn, MSc; Stacey Brown, RN; Teresa Cassidy, RN

Project Description: This project uses teleconferencing and a mobile application to deliver a hope enhancement program to pediatric oncology healthcare workers to enhance their sense of hope, improve their global health measurements, and reduce burnout. Staff who interact with the pediatric oncology population will be recruited at Rady Children’s Hospital San Diego.  Participants (goal N=50) will attend the Hopetimize workshop and use the Hopetimize mobile application for 3 months. We anticipate that the intervention will improve hope scores and decrease burnout.  This project will add new insight into the effectiveness of hope as a tool to mitigate professional burnout. 

Anti-racism and social justice statement: Healthcare workers from underrepresented minorities do not benefit equally from the shared community or mentorship of colleagues due to underrepresentation, structural inequities and biases. This individualized hope enhancement program allows those from underrepresented minorities to define their priorities to build hope and fight burnout with plans centered on their own experiences and goals.


Cultivating Cultures of Compassion

Principal Investigator: Dr. Desiree Shapiro


Team: Desiree Shapiro, MD (PI); Stephanie Schmitt, MD; Flora Wong; Job Godino, PhD; Anahi Ibarra, MPH; Raphael Cuomo, PhD, MPH

Project Description: Consistent mindfulness interventions have growing evidence base in medical training to promote wellbeing, decrease stress, and respond more effectively in clinical situations. These interventions have the potential to buffer against the ubiquitous stress medical trainees experience, especially if learned and practiced early in one’s medical training. Despite known benefit, limitations include lack of training, competing priorities, overstretched leadership, and insufficient resources. Researching evidence-based strategies that address content, delivery methods, and adaptability is critical to successful implementation and evaluation. This study will explore the feasibility of integrating a mindful self-compassion program into a pediatric residency program that includes formal group training and micro-opportunities for practicing mindfulness. The team will investigate effects of this programming on assessments of mindfulness, self-compassion, connectedness, empathy, stress, and burnout.

Anti-racism and social justice statement: Pediatricians are devoted to the wellbeing of children, adolescents, families, and communities. Offering tools and strategies for training pediatricians to practice self-awareness, reflection, understanding, and acknowledgement of biases has the potential to promote more equitable and anti-racist decisions and actions. Cultivating individual and group awareness and compassion may allow for spaces that encourage interconnectedness and conversations about the critical role of social justice and anti-racism in healing. 


Do you see what I see? The impact of video chat on children's perspective-taking and theory of mind

Principal Investigator: Dr. Adena Schachner


Team: Adena Schachner, PhD (PI)

Project Description: Video chat is now a primary means of connection for many children and distanced family members. How do children understand video chat, and what impact does it have on children’s understanding of others? Video chat’s self-view directly displays what the partner sees; this may help children understand that others have different perspectives. This project will investigate the development of perspective-taking over video chat, and the impact of video chat on children’s social thinking. The project will shed light on the impact of modern-day technology on children’s ability “to put themselves in someone else’s shoes” – a foundational component of empathy and compassion.

Anti-racism and social justice statement: One means of advancing social justice is increasing people’s understanding of the perspectives of people from disadvantaged groups. Perspective-taking and theory of mind, the ability to reason about others' mental states (such as intentions, beliefs, knowledge, emotions), provides the cognitive basis for understanding others as having rich mental and emotional lives, and understanding their contrasting perspectives. The current work will advance social justice by increasing understanding of how theory of mind develops in childhood, and how technology can help or hinder the processes of social reasoning that are at the core of understanding people who differ from ourselves. In addition, this research will advance anti-racism and social justice by including diverse children and families as participants in the research. In doing this, we introduce children and families to the diverse scientists on our team, and expose them to the idea that a career in STEM research could be “for them”. This research also involves mentorship of students from underrepresented groups: Over 80% of the 20+ students in the PI’s lab come from groups that are underrepresented in science, and the PI places emphasis on involving women and first-generation college students in research. This research will thereby promote involvement of members of underrepresented groups in STEM.

Fall 2020 Awardees

Funding for this round of seed grants was disseminated in Spring 2021.

Examining Associations between Misinformation Spread, Empathy, and Narcissism Online across COVID-19 Discourse using Big Data and Social Network Analysis

Principal Investigator: Dr. Timothy Mackey


Team: Timothy K. Mackey, PhD (PI); Seana Coulson, PhD; Michael Haupt, MA

Project Description:  This project investigates how empathy and narcissism levels of Twitter users influence the likelihood of anti-social communication (e.g., spreading misinformation such as false scientific evidence, rumors, conspiracy theories) and pro-social communication behaviors (e.g., correcting misinformation, disseminating accurate scientific information). The investigators will also examine how empathy and narcissism levels of users impact structural features of an online communication network such as network density, reciprocity of ties, and group homophily, and will use natural language processing (NLP) to observe how empathy and narcissism influence thematic content. Findings from this work will be used to develop strategies that monitor harmful discourse using publicly available social media data, and to inform interventions that mitigate online toxicity and misinformation spread.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Misinformation surrounding COVID-19 halts critical efforts to arrest the spread of the virus, which can be worsened by pre-existing racial disparities that have already contributed to disparate levels of COVID-19 infections and deaths during the pandemic. In order to mitigate the effects of misinformation spread within communities, this project will also investigate if ethnic groups are targeted differently by misinformation by comparing differences in distribution and messaging of misinformation.


Using Computer Vision to Improve Clinician Sensitivity and Empathy in Recognizing Pain from Faces across Different Races

Principal Investigator: Dr. Virginia de Sa


Team: Virginia de Sa, PhD (PI); Xiaojing Xu, MS; Alessandro D’Amico; Krishnan Chakravarthy, MD; Donna Kritz-Silverstein, PhD; Ellen Beck, MD

Project Description:  Estimating pain intensity in patients is important for medically and compassionately dealing with patients who are unable to report their own pain level due to communication disabilities, age, or reduced consciousness. It has been found that medical professionals underestimate pain levels in patients in general and this can be amplified by demographics such as age, gender and, critically for this proposal, race. We will use computer vision and machine learning technology to study and train improved pain-evaluation in medical trainees observing videos of Black and White patients in pain.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Numerous studies have shown racial disparities in health care. Most relevant for this work, Black patients have their pain underestimated and are prescribed less analgesic medications, especially opioids (with a three-fold difference in prescription rates from 2011 to 2019 between different racial groups). Inadequate pain care can lead to diverse adverse health outcomes including: lost earnings, decline in care seeking, depression and anxiety as well as long-term health disparities. This project will develop and test a new training protocol to help clinical trainees better recognize pain in others with an emphasis on improving pain recognition from Black faces.


Barriers and Facilitators to Cultivating Compassion in the Provider-Parent Relationship Using Telepsychiatry During COVID-19

Principal Investigator: Dr. Elizabeth Eikey


Team: Elizabeth Eikey, PhD (PI); Wael Al-Delaimy, MD, PhD (Co-PI); Katherine Nguyen Williams, PhD; Nicholas Chan, MD

Project Description:  Since COVID-19, there has been a rapid shift to delivering mental health services via telemedicine. Thus, understanding how to promote compassionate mental healthcare using digital tools has become increasingly imperative. For children receiving mental health services, the ways the provider and parents/caregivers cultivate compassion are key, as they are often the gatekeepers for these services and their relationship with the provider impacts their child's care. There is a lack of studies investigating barriers and facilitators to compassion in the provider-parent/caregiver relationship using telepsychiatry, despite studies showing that digital technologies can both hinder and facilitate compassion. We aim to address this gap by conducting a primarily qualitative study to better understand the barriers and facilitators of compassion cultivation between providers and parents/caregivers of children engaging in telepsychiatry.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Cultivating compassion effectively necessitates a consideration of peoples’ identity, culture, experiences, and needs. Lack of cultural understanding between parents/caregivers and providers may pose a challenge to cultivating compassion and connection. These are two barriers to accessing and benefiting from mental health services and contribute to systemic disparities for marginalized groups. Although this study cannot address the lack of diversity in the workforce, it does foreground parents'/caregivers' identities and integrate cultural competency in the stages of compassion to better understand individual and system-level needs not only during but also beyond COVID-19 and may inform sociotechnical practices to better facilitate compassion and improve care.


Mindful M.Ed. - Training the physicians of tomorrow 

Principal Investigator: Dr. Desiree Shapiro


Team: Desiree Shapiro, MD (PI); Anahi Ibarra, MPH; Kiley Rucker, UC San Diego Medical Student; Jyoti Mishra, PhD; Job Godino, MS, PhD

Project Description:  Allowing time and space for mindfulness practice within medical school has the potential to benefit future physicians, clinical environments, and the patient experience. Empathy, mindfulness, and compassion can be trained through intentional practice and reinforcement. In this pilot study, participating students will engage in mindfulness practice during a medical school elective in addition to receiving daily-tailored text messages of mindfulness and self-compassion. Measures including empathy, mindfulness, self-compassion, & perceived stress will be tracked. Engagement and usability of the technology will also be assessed. We will explore whether micro-doses of mindfulness practices will benefit medical students, and hopefully their future patients.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Caring for patients with empathy, compassion, and dignity are essential in promoting positive health. Disparities, inequities, and injustices are traumatic; these take a physical, emotional, and spiritual toll on individual and collective well-being. We aim to teach medical students how to cultivate comforting and affirming healing spaces through mindfulness practices.


A Prosocial Virtual Reality Protest Simulation for Eliciting, Measuring, and Training Anti-Racism, Empathy and Compassion

Principal Investigator: Dr. Erik Viirre


Team: Erik Viirre, MD, PhD (PI); Cassandra Vieten, PhD; Trisha Williams; Amy Winkler; Maxwell Luthy; Joseph Unger; Rowan Ives; Dione Surdez Oliver; Gregory Horowitt

Project Description:  The Collection uses VR and highly-stylized scenarios & environments designed specifically for in group interaction. Rather than a game, these real-time acted scenarios and embodied experiences immerse the user in the roll of a medical professional experiencing a violent protest. Through walking a virtual street to the hospital, participants explore multiple points of view from protesters across a diverse range of; thought, background, means, and identity expressed as explicit values on signs, in action, and recordings. While facing the tense streets, participants must make choices on how and who to help. This experience delivers detailed authenticity including journalistic quality content, and individual interviews. 

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  By developing and deploying effective content experiences and personal development tools to first responders, medical systems, staff and payers that foster social compassion & empathy towards to human differences that drive disparity, we can provide future experiences that allow humanity to immerse themselves in a provocative yet safe experience that may otherwise be out of reach.

Spring 2020 Awardees

Funding for this inaugural round of seed grants was disseminated in Summer 2020.

Development and Pilot-testing of Virtual Reality-based Patient-Physician Interaction Narratives to Increase Empathy and Compassion and Mitigate Bias among Medical Students

Principal Investigator: Dr. Suzi Hong

Team: Suzi Hong, PhD (PI); Jordan Kohn, PhD; Lina Lander, ScD; Jurgen Schulze, PhD; Emily Troyer, MD; Kama Guluma, MD; Erik Viirre, MD, PhD; Ming Tai-Seale, PhD

Project Description:  Implicit bias among healthcare providers toward patients from historically disadvantaged sociodemographic groups, while unintentional, has detrimental impacts on the physician-patient relationship, leading to poorer patient outcomes and higher rates of physician burnout. Diversity training has limited effects on bias, while ‘empathic strain’ is increasing among physicians. Empathy and compassion-focused strategies, such as intentional perspective-taking, may mitigate bias and improve compassion, thereby improving patient and physician outcomes. Currently, their use in medical education is limited and effects are unknown. Our project will develop and evaluate the feasibility of a virtual reality (VR) narrative film-based educational platform to raise awareness of the biases and increase compassion in medical trainees.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Our project seeks to develop a virtual reality (VR) narrative film-based educational platform to both increase compassion and mitigate implicit bias occur in patient-physician interactions for physicians in training. Implicit biases among healthcare providers toward patients from historically marginalized sociodemographic groups is a key factor in widespread, systemic disparities in patient outcomes within the US. Thus, mitigating bias by using VR in medical education seeks to improve patients’ outcomes and experience among minority groups, and thereby increase equity within the healthcare system.


A New mHealth Tool to Evaluate Changes over Time in Empathy and Compassion

Principal Investigator: Dr. Matthew Herbert


Team: Matthew Herbert, PhD (PI); Lisa Eyler, PhD; Raeanne Moore, PhD; Jennalee Wooldridge, PhD

Project Description:  Bolstering empathy and compassion within medical training holds promise for improving quality of care for patients while decreasing burnout among providers. The T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion will address this need by providing empathy and compassion training within UCSD’s School of Medicine. To measure the impact of these efforts, it is imperative to develop feasible and reliable methods to assess empathy and compassion levels over time. We will examine the utility of a smartphone-based ecological momentary assessment tool to measure the temporal dynamics of empathy and compassion levels, as well as contextual factors that may influence these levels (e.g., mood, stress, burnout, social isolation), over the 2020/2021 training year among UCSD medical students.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Developing an internalization of shared humanity and cultivating compassion for others are important features of compassion training that promotes anti-racism and social justice. A better understanding of factors that contribute to within-person increases and decreases of empathy and compassion will help maximize compassion training efforts and thereby support anti-racism and social justice among UCSD medical students. We will also directly examine how empathy and compassion dynamics relate to baseline and change in social justice self-efficacy.


Computational Modeling & Training of Face Perception-Based Empathy and Compassion

Principal Investigator: Dr. Angela Yu


Team: Angela Yu, PhD (PI); Martin Paulus, MD

Project Description:  Racial disparities in the healthcare setting are well-documented. Prior work indicates that non-minority clinicians, when viewing the face of a minority individual, tend to perceive more negative social traits that could contribute to poorer clinician-patient communication and less optimal treatment recommendations, as compared to same-race patients. Separately, individuation training in children and adults have been shown to ameliorate implicit racial biases. Combining computational modeling and behavioral experiments, this project will investigate whether face-based individuation training of Black faces can increase a viewer's empathy/compassion toward Black individuals, engender more positive social impressions, as well as generally reduce implicit racial biases.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  Racial disparities in the healthcare setting are well-documented. Research suggests that one contributing component may be systematic cross-race differences in face-based judgment of someone's social intentions and attributes, with particularly adverse consequences for African Americans, especially Black men. This project investigates the potential of a novel face-based training paradigm that can potentially reduce racial biases and engender greater empathy and compassion for Black individuals. This work may point to a novel and effective mechanism for combating racism and increasing social justice in healthcare and other social settings.


Personalizing Physician Empathy Leveraging Wireless Wearables & AI

Principal Investigator: Dr. Jyoti Mishra

Team: Jyoti Mishra, PhD (PI); Sujit Dey, PhD; Alana Iglewicz, MD

Project Description:  This project aims to study physician burnout and emotional fatigue in-depth leveraging smartphones and wireless wearables. We hypothesize that physician wellness, and related physician empathy may be determinable based on multidimensional factors including (1) lifestyle factors such as sleep, physical activity, and diet, (2) cognitive factors such as physiological processing speed to varying emotions, and (3) mindset factors such as mindful self-regulation and gratitude. Here, we aim to longitudinally evaluate these factors both subjectively and objectively using wearables, and additionally, leverage machine learning methods to build personalized models of empathy and wellbeing in each physician. These personalized models aim to provide quantitative insight into the factors that make each physician optimally empathic in order to facilitate these states.

Anti-racism and social justice statement:  This research leverages scalable wearable tools and mobile sampling methodologies that allow us to reach a greater diversity of individuals. It further treats every physician, of any race or socio-economic background as a unique individual and makes an effort to understand the factors that uniquely contribute to their personal wellbeing and empathy. Such personalized understanding can ultimately provide insights for social justice, i.e. just distribution of opportunities and resources that benefit each individual as per their need.