Compassion in health care seems to be getting more attention these days, and it’s about time.
I know this both as a nurse for 30 years and also because of my own personal experience.
Following surgery, I made a list of questions to ask the physician on his early-morning rounds. Before I could open my mouth, he grabbed the paper out of my hands, turned his back, wrote the answers on the paper, handed it back to me, and walked out of the room.
There is a new book out, co-authored by Cooper Hospital physician Anthony Mazzarelli, called Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference. As a registered nurse with more than 30 years of experience, I know that there is absolutely nothing “revolutionary” about the evidence linking compassion and caring with safe and high-quality care. The discovery by physicians that compassion and caring improve patient outcomes and reduce costs is something registered nurses have long known – they have been generating the scientific evidence for decades.
I am not discounting or diminishing the importance of Mazzarelli’s work or his book – I’m excited to see this is becoming a priority for doctors. It can only improve care of individuals and families, and I am a fan of anything that does so.
The longstanding American Medical Association Code of Medical Ethics first principle states, “A physician shall be dedicated to providing competent medical care, with compassion and respect for human dignity and rights.” So, why is compassion now in vogue? Perhaps because hospitals and physicians are no longer getting paid solely for the quantity of the care they deliver, but increasingly for the quality of that care. Quality involves connecting and communicating with individuals and families and improving their care experience.
Compassion is a fundamental human quality and essential to the professional practice of registered nurses, physicians, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, social workers, and all health-care professionals. In addition, compassion is a precious asset that needs to be valued for more than just return on investment. There is value in listening, developing a relationship, being present, touching, and investing time.
For some, compassion may not come naturally, yet can be nurtured or eroded in education and clinical settings. First, we must look inward at our ability to be authentic, purposeful, and present. We must teach ourselves and our students and staff to care for people and families with compassion as human beings, not just patients. We must teach ourselves and our students and staff to talk and listen, in meaningful ways, to people and their families. Whether you care for someone nine minutes, nine hours, or nine months, be intentional, thoughtful, and compassionate with your care. For individuals and families, time can move very slowly, while for clinicians time is rapid fire. These two realities are not synchronized. Families are challenged to assimilate what is happening; that is why compassion is critical to support health care.
According to the Woodhull Study Revisited by Diana Mason and Barbara Glickstein, registered nurses’ clinical expertise is accompanied by unique perspectives on health, illness, and health care. But the public is not benefiting enough from the compassion, wisdom, and insight that nurses can provide because doctors seem to be go-to sources for the media more often than nurses. If nurses’ voices were included in the stories we’re now hearing from doctors about compassion in health care, the call for greater empathy would be even stronger. That’s why coverage of health, health care, and health policy would benefit from more input from nurses, the people on the front lines.
Beth Ann Swan, Ph.D, is a certified registered nurse practitioner, professor and former dean at Jefferson College of Nursing in Philadelphia.