Empathy Mapping

Informed consent empathy map

Adapted from our Introduction to Bioethics online course, originally published in April 2014.

This activity is ambitious, but it’s a great activity if you have the time.  It works especially well when done in groups, though it can be adapted for doing on your own as well.

There is a difference between signing a consent form, on the one hand, and making a meaningful decision — one that exhibits understanding and exercises genuine autonomy. This exercise is designed to explore that gap.

You’ll read short scenarios, designed to place you in different positions of medical need, and look at informed consent documents that patients might encounter in those scenarios. You’ll be using something called an “Empathy Map” to help you imagine what you might be thinking, feelinghearing, saying, and doing in as you attempt to read the consent form.  Take a look!


What is an empathy map?

An empathy map is a tool that teams or individuals use to gain insight about a specific experience.

In this exercise, you will put yourself in the place of a patient whose consent is required for a particular medical treatment.  You’ll read different three different short scenarios about an accident or medical condition, each paired with a consent form.

You’ll use the empathy map to prompt and organize your reflections about what the patient is experiencing as he or she tries to read and sign the consent form, putting down as many as you can in a short time. Then you’ll reflect and discuss what emerged.


Get the documents

» prompts: click to download a printable PDF of all three prompts
» consent formsclick to download a printable PDF of all three consent forms
» maps: click the images below to download a PDF of each map, or click here to download both

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(These pdfs are formatted to print on 8.5 x 11″ paper, which is standard in the US. You might need to adjust your printer settings to print on other sizes, such as A4.)


Try it with a group

You’ll need:

  • pens or markers
  • big sheets of paper, or whiteboards or chalkboard
  • sticky notes are great — even better if you have a different color for each individual or team

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Get started:

  1. Print one copy of each of the three prompts and three consent forms.
  2. Draw three empathy maps on large sheets of paper. You can also draw these on a chalkboard or whiteboard — whatever makes group annotation easy.
  3. Place a matched prompt and consent form on each of the large empathy maps.
  4. Divide your group into three, one for each empathy map station.  You’ll be giving people about 5 minutes at each station, rotating the groups so that everyone has a chance to interact with each scenario and consent form.  It’s helpful to give each group a specific color pen or color of sticky note.
  5. While at a station, have people fill the map with comments about they might be thinking, feeling, hearing, saying, and doing if they were in this medical situation, trying to read the consent form.  More is better — and it doesn’t have to be fancy.  Words, phrases, even pictures!  The idea is to enter into the imagined experience as concretely as you can.
  6. After about 5 minutes, move each group to a new map, and repeat the process. You will be adding your own thoughts and reflections to those of the group before you, which is why it is nice to use sticky notes — you can easily layer and move them without making anything unreadable. If you don’t have sticky notes, markers will work just fine as long as you leave space for others. After another 5 minutes or so, have everyone move again so that everyone gets to work on all three of the scenarios.
  7. Now for the group discussion. Take a look at the empathy maps that were created. Take some time to reflect as a group on what you learned from this exercise. How did the different settings differ from one another, and how were they the same? Were there any scenarios in which you felt confident, reading the form, that you could give a truly informed consent? Were there any where it felt impossible? Does this change your view about the importance of informed consent in medical practice? If so, how? If not, why not?
  8. Finally, you might ask yourselves: what did you learn from what others placed on the map? Did anything surprise you? How did these differences of opinion shape your own perspective on the issue of informed consent?

Try it by yourself

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Get started:

  1. Print the documents — the three fictional prompts and consent forms, and three copies of the empathy map. (You can also draw your own map on a larger sheet of paper, or on a chalkboard or whiteboard — more space is better!)
  2. Start with one prompt and its corresponding consent form. Take 5 minutes to review the scenario, and begin filling in the areas of the empathy map with what you imagine you might be thinking, feeling, hearing, saying, and doing in this situation, as you attempt to read the consent form.  More is better — and it doesn’t have to be fancy.  Words, phrases, even pictures.  The idea is to enter into the imagined experience as concretely as you can.
  3. Repeat for the other two prompts and forms.
  4. Now take a look at the maps you made.  Take a moment to reflect. How did the different settings differ from one another, and how were they the same? Were there any scenarios in which you felt confident, reading the form, that you could give a truly informed consent? Were there any where it felt impossible? Does this change your view about the importance of informed consent in medical practice? If so, how? If not, why not?

Share with us

We want to know how it goes! Share reflections, pictures or audio of your session or your conclusions, and more with us by tweeting @EthicsLab, or sharing on our Facebook page.

We can’t wait to hear from you.


We tried it at home

We built the scenarios and fictionalized informed consent documents (which were based on composites of actual examples) to help our students explore this issue.

Images below are from an empathy-mapping sandbox session held in Ethics Lab in summer 2013. This was one of the very first design sessions we hosted in the lab and you can see how far the space has come since then!

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