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What is the role of compassion in healthcare? 

At a glance

  • Compassionate healthcare requires empathy for a patient’s feelings, a willingness to help and rational actions toward finding a solution. 
  • Burnout and power dynamics can make it difficult for some healthcare professionals to act on their compassion. 
  • The concepts of caring and compassion are researched and applied to improve patient outcomes.
  • Ready to take the next step in your healthcare career? Learn more about healthcare degrees at University of Phoenix.

Cognitive and behavioral concepts are important to consider when supporting population health and positive health outcomes. A healthcare professional’s attitude, words and body language affect patient outcomes. Of course, these things won’t cure a disease on their own. On the other hand, would patients be more willing to keep up with a rigorous drug regimen if their prescribing physician were someone they trusted and liked? 

The concept of compassion in healthcare has spurred debate in the medical community. Ongoing conversations are illuminating the ways that compassion might have real medical value to patients and healthcare providers alike. 

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What do we mean when we talk about compassionate healthcare?

Everyone who enters the medical system, whether they be a patient or provider, has their own expectations of behavior. Generally, most people might agree that their nurse or physician should be “compassionate” or “sympathetic,” but definitions differ on exactly what those terms mean or how a healthcare provider should act. 

A survey of the literature reveals a number of definitions for “compassionate healthcare.” According to an article in the International Journal of Palliative Nursing, compassion comprises three key qualities:

1.   Empathy

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others, is the first step. Compassionate healthcare providers respond empathetically to patient suffering and feelings. 

2.   Willingness to help

It’s not enough to empathize with a patient’s suffering or feelings. Compassion requires a desire to help, a desire that is apparent and active. While empathy is an internal feeling, willingness can be observed externally in both effect and action

3.   Rational action  

Healthcare providers who are empathetic with their patients and willing to help won’t do much good for anyone if they do not act rationally. Rather provider actions should be specific, ethical and “directed at finding a solution to [patient] suffering”, according to International Journal of Palliative Nursing.

Taken together, these three aspects make up a strong working definition of compassionate healthcare.  

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Why can it be tough to provide compassionate care?

If compassionate care is lacking, it’s not because healthcare providers are uncompassionate people. Here are a few reasons why healthcare providers may have difficulty giving compassionate care.  


Burnout in nurses and physicians results from the long hours and stress they experience helping patients around the clock. Burnout can make a person more cynical and less excited about going to work. Whether it be in tone or body language, that cynicism can come across as callous and unempathetic. 

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A focus on the facts

Medicine, like any science, depends on experimental design, data-driven conclusions and hard facts. Quantitative measurable data is used to solve difficult medical problems.

There are research methods that allow scientists to capture the human part of the process. Of course, a provider’s education, skills, quantitative reasoning, experience and access to information must form the basis of their work. It’s important to talk to patients as people and take time to ask questions and truly listen. That distinction can mean the difference between care that is compassionate and care that isn’t. 

Why is compassionate healthcare important? 

Considering where compassion should exist in healthcare has specific implications for physicians, nurses and patients. Here are a few things to consider about compassionate healthcare:

Benefits of compassionate care 

When compassionate care is practiced, it can have many benefits. For patients, some of the benefits of compassionate care are:

·       Enhanced coping skills

·       Improved health outcomes

·       Feeling cared for and respected

·       Increased satisfaction and confidence

·       Better compliance with treatment plans

For healthcare practitioners, benefits of compassionate care may include:

·       A sense of satisfaction from helping others

·       Improved working relationships with colleagues

·       Increased job satisfaction

·       Reduced stress levels

Although healthcare workers continue to work in challenging conditions, providing compassionate care to patients is a rewarding experience. It has the potential to make a difficult job more rewarding and create a rapport that could improve patient care.

Standards of care 

Standards of care, evidence-based decision-making, policies, procedures and proper training are meant to regulate and improve patient care across the board.

Patients who feel their provider is listening and being compassionate may likely provide more details about their symptoms, social history and personal care practices. This may reveal certain information that can lead to a more accurate diagnosis and treatment.

On the other hand, if patients feel their provider does not care about them, they may withhold information because they are not comfortable, resulting in delayed or inaccurate treatment.

Avoiding burnout

It might seem counterintuitive, but there is a way that more compassionate care can actually benefit healthcare providers from experiencing burnout.

While compassion might require a greater expenditure of energy, it can also provide a sense of accomplishment. When compassionate providers successfully treat a patient, they can see the impact firsthand. This can lead to increased motivation, which helps to dispel cynicism, withdrawal and burnout. 

How can healthcare professionals take a more compassionate approach to patient care?

There are guidelines that can benefit most providers in taking a more compassionate approach to patient care. Research published in the peer-reviewed PLOS One journal, suggests the following:

1.      Sitting instead of standing while speaking with a patient

2.      Paying attention to nonverbal cues 

3.      Looking for opportunities to show compassion

4.      Demonstrating compassion both nonverbally and verbally

These researchers found that certain training methods were more successful in building compassion in healthcare professionals. For example, professionals benefit from being able to practice compassion rather than listening to a lecture about its importance.

Healthcare providers benefit from learning how to engage in:

·       Verbal explanation

·       Small talk

·       Listening

·       Calming

·       Encouragement

·       Nodding and smiling

·       Supportive touching

How to practice compassion as a healthcare professional 

Begin with self-compassion. Learning how to empathize with others may not come easily to healthcare professionals who haven’t learned previously how to do it for themselves. However, it is a skill that can be learned and practiced.

Listen actively 

It may seem like common sense, but making an honest effort to listen to a patient’s words can be the biggest difference in building compassion. This means being present in the moment and giving your full attention to the person speaking. Active listening also involves trying to understand what the other person is feeling. This can be done by paying attention to their body language and tone of voice.

Some tips for active listening are:

·       Ask questions

·       Make eye contact

·       Put away distractions

·       Repeat back what the other person has said

Answer questions 

When patients ask questions, it’s essential to give them honest answers. This doesn’t mean you need to share every detail about their diagnosis or treatment. It does mean, however, being truthful.

Likewise, delicate information requires a compassionate and honest approach. Tips for answering questions openly and honestly include:

·       Using tones and words that are respectful and nonjudgmental

·       Acknowledging that some questions may be challenging to answer

·       Using language that is easy to understand

·       Avoiding medical jargon

Provide comfort when possible 

It is important to provide some level of comfort to patients. This can be done in various ways, depending on the situation. Examples of providing comfort include:

·       Using positive and reassuring body language

·       Offering words of encouragement

·       Spending extra time with patients

·       Helping to make sure patients have everything they need

It’s essential to set healthy boundaries to avoid compassion fatigue. This means knowing your limits and taking time for yourself when needed. Tips for setting healthy boundaries include:

·       Saying no when you need to

·       Asking for help from colleagues

·       Making time for self-care

·       Staying up to date on your mental health

Set patients up for success

Helping patients succeed is one of the most powerful things healthcare providers can do. This means providing them with the resources and information to make informed decisions about their health.

 Some ways to set patients up for success are:

·       Educating them about their condition

·       Helping them understand their treatment options

·       Referring them to specialists

·       Connecting them with support groups

·       Giving them resources to make healthy lifestyle changes

These may seem like small things but taken together they can leave a patient feeling more heard and cared for. And the ripple effects of that can be far-reaching.


Michael Feder is a Content Marketing Specialist at University of Phoenix, where he researches and writes on a variety of topics, ranging from healthcare to IT and everything in between. He is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars program, and a New Jersey native!


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