Having compassion in a high-pressure work environment can be a tall order at times. You have to navigate many complex situations and conversations each day, all while managing your own stress at the same time.  

Right now, more than ever, it’s important to bring compassion into healthcare because the data shows that we’re severely lacking it. 

There’s a Compassion Crisis in Healthcare 

With limited time for patient visits, staffing issues, and uncertain outcomes for patients, it can be difficult to make room for compassion.  

The lack of compassion in American healthcare is having undeniable effects. Nearly “two-thirds of Americans have had a meaningful health care experience with a striking lack of compassion,” according to a survey from the University of Pennsylvania.  

Imagine the last time you were sick, in pain, or needed help. You likely wanted someone to show you warmth and understanding. Everyone needs to feel a human connection when they are in distress. As healthcare providers, it’s our job to provide that connection while we find the solution to what ails our patients. 

Balancing the Mental Load 

While it’s important and necessary to establish emotional rapport with your patients, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. When you extend empathy to someone, you’re sharing their pain. For many doctors it’s tempting to develop a resistance to empathy in order to relieve themselves of the emotional burden. 

However, it can be healthy and rewarding to open that connection to your patients. You don’t just share their pain, but also their victories and their relief. For some, this positive feedback actually reduces stress and burnout.  

Compassionate care results in more successful outcomes for patients as well. A study conducted by John Hopkins University found that HIV patients with positive relationships with their doctors showed “33% higher odds of adherence to therapy, and 20% higher odds of having no detectable virus in the blood.”  

What Happens When Doctors Lack Compassion? 

It’s an unfortunate reality that many patients have negative experiences with doctors and nurses who don’t listen to them. People with chronic conditions, mental health issues, or who are members of marginalized groups report needing to strongly advocate for themselves just to get adequate care. 

We can do our part to minimize these experiences by compassionately listening. It not only makes patients feel better, but also helps them get the proper treatment that they need. 

Ways to Listen Compassionately 

You don’t have to recite a script to make your patients feel listened to. Using just a couple of these methods can dramatically improve your relationship with your patients. Many of these can be done even with limited face to face time. 

  • Acknowledge your patient’s feelings. This can be as simple as saying “I understand that this is hard for you.” When we feel that our emotions are understood, we’re more likely to explain what we’re going through in greater detail, meaning more valuable information that you can use in treatments. 
  • Pay attention to body language. Both your patient’s, and your own! Body language is an important facilitator in making positive connections with others. 
  • Observe all the facts. A patient’s prior medical history doesn’t always tell the whole story. Make sure that you take what your patient tells you into account alongside their existing medical history. This can include new symptoms, negative reactions to medication, or past misdiagnoses. 
  • Understand biases in medicine. Everyone has biases, but in the medical profession they can compound into poor outcomes for patients. Critically analyze how social bias can become intertwined with doctor-patient relationships so you can give each patient quality care. 
  • Deliver bad news privately and tactfully. It’s never easy to tell a patient something they don’t want to hear. Always take difficult conversations to a private area where others are unlikely to intrude to show respect for your patient’s privacy and emotions. Give them space to process their feelings about the situation. 
  • Take care of your mental health. Regularly practicing self-care and stress management can recharge your batteries for these conversations. With the right balance of stress reduction and awareness of the positive impact you’re having on patients’ lives, giving compassion can become more rewarding than draining. 

You can also use some of the strategies outlined by the National Library of Medicine to have smoother patient interactions. 

By going the extra mile for patients, we can do our part to bring compassion back into healthcare. 


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