BACKGROUND: Studies have demonstrated that empathic communication improves patient outcomes and helps doctors to deliver accurate symptom reports and diagnoses. These benefits emphasise the need for medical students to apply empathic communication skills during their interactions with patients. Focussed empathic communication skill workshops were introduced into the undergraduate medical students' training at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Stellenbosch University, South Africa. This study aimed to explore students' perceptions of applying these empathic communication skills during their clinical practice. We were interested in determining the factors that might influence the development of empathic communication skills. The findings could help curriculum developers to optimise these workshops for inclusion in a formal medical curriculum. METHODS: This study followed a qualitative, descriptive enquiry, exploring the perceptions of medical students through focus-group discussions. The students (N = 18) were selected using convenience sampling techniques. Recordings were transcribed, and the data were thematically analysed. RESULTS: The two main themes identified relate to the students and the clinical learning environment. The students valued the knowledge and skills they acquired. However, feelings of emotional vulnerability, a lack of language proficiency and inadequate role modelling were highlighted as challenges when applying empathic communication during clinical practice. CONCLUSION: The students reported positively on the workshops as these improved both their patient and personal interactions. However, for students to develop these skills further for clinical practice, they need more intentional and supervised opportunities to practise, reflect and receive constructive feedback. These learning opportunities could help medical schools deliver graduates who can competently communicate with their patients in an empathic manner.
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