The Importance of Compassion in Healthcare

We often say actions speak louder than words — but words matter just as much to patients.

Compassion helps patients more than most realize. Compassion creates the support and understanding that permeates every other treatment you provide.

Today, we’ll discuss how compassionate healthcare looks and how healthcare professionals can start offering more compassion to their patients.

What is compassion?

In healthcare, we often hear the word “compassion”, but do we know what it means or how it affects our lives?

As stated by R. Epstein in his book, Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity (2017, Simon and Shuster), Compassion is noticing another’s suffering, resonating with their suffering, and then acting on behalf of the other person.

In healthcare, this means putting ourselves in our patient’s shoes, building an empathic connection, and truly being present with them.

It is demoralizing for patients to have a healthcare provider that does not provide support, reassurance, and guidance. No matter what else you do for them, patients need compassion.

Why Compassion is needed in Healthcare

Compassion helps doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to better connect with the people around them: patients and colleagues. Compassion transforms their work and provides a much deeper purpose. Work stops being a job consisting of an endless array of tasks and becomes a source of spiritual renewal. 

Compassion is the strongest foundation of everything we do in healthcare. Compassion answers our “why?”  

Patient care that is rooted in compassion is ultimately more effective and rewarding. It is more effective because it helps our patients feel included and validated. It is more rewarding because we are truly making a difference – even when we can’t solve the physical ailment.

As healthcare workers, we often spend more time focused on what we must do rather than on who we’re doing it for. Being too task-oriented risks sacrificing the critical connection with patients and their families.   

Healthcare professionals experience meaning and purpose when they do things to benefit others. Compassion nourishes the healer and is in fact the best antidote to burnout (ref. K. Rigamonti, Injecting Humanity into Healthcare Enhances the Culture and Quality of an Organization, Journal of Radiology Nursing under submission).

How to be Compassionate in Healthcare

Below are several ways healthcare professionals can bring more compassion into their patients’ care.

Focus on the Present Experience

During a conversation with a patient, our mind may race to the next item on our to-do list. The patients sense this, being perceptive to the amount of attention we are giving them. So, to truly connect we must be present during every conversation by making eye contact, nodding, and paraphrasing what they’ve said back to them, ensuring that they feel understood and properly acknowledged.

Take an Interest in Their Lives

Asking them about family members, pets, a book they’re reading or topics that they bring up in conversation creates a deeper connection to their lives and helps to build trust.

These innocent dialogues between provider and patient have a tremendous effect on the relationship. They help to calm the nerves of the patient and demonstrate a more personal and deeper concern for the patient’s overall well-being.

Practice Empathy

The emotions that our patients experience influence their health. Patients carry a lot of emotions with them — stress, fear, worry, or depression. Acknowledging their feelings and addressing their physical and emotional needs will lead to more compassionate and effective care.

Refrain from saying “I know what you’re going through” or “I know how you feel” that makes patients feel dismissed and unseen. Instead, invite the patients to express their emotions by admitting “I can only begin to imagine”. Recognize their struggle. “I can see how hard you’ve been trying to get a resolution with this,” is acknowledging your resonance with their emotions and validating their concerns and experiences.

Good Manners are a Must

A warm greeting is an important prologue to any clinical encounter.

Avoid being distracted during time with patients.

Be sure to ask if it’s okay for you to move closer before examining them.

Guide them through the assessments, explaining each step before continuing to the next so that patients feel in control of their health and care.

Give clear instructions and ask the patient to tell you what they understood.

The Benefits of Compassion

Compassion lets the patients know that we’re here for them, providing undivided attention and support no matter what their prognosis is.

Patients feeling uneasy or lacking trust in healthcare professionals can withhold important details surrounding their symptoms or fail to comply with treatment recommendations.

People may not remember what was said in a conversation, but they will never forget how we made them feel during our conversations.

To be able to practice compassion requires taking care of our mental health to avoid the all-too-common compassion fatigue, a feeling that negatively impacts our practice and compromises our ability to care.

Compassion Starts Here

I believe compassion in healthcare to be the missing link for many practitioners struggling to care for their patients. I aim to help healthcare professionals learn more about how they can implement authentic compassion into their daily practice.

Contact me if you want to be guided in how to implement compassionate conversations where you and those you interact with feel seen and heard.