Compassion combines an empathic response to another’s suffering with actions to relieve that suffering. It’s an important aspect of what patients need when they see their healthcare practitioner, but the demands of healthcare work can make it difficult for practitioners to sustain compassion consistently.
A lack of compassion in healthcare provision can lead to patients feeling devalued and lacking in emotional support. For example, its absence is frequently cited in complaints by health consumers to the Health and Disability Commission. Researchers have shown that compassionate caring is associated with greater patient satisfaction, better doctor-patient relationships, and improved psychological states among patients.
Research has also found positive relationships between one form of compassion, for example, positive clinical-patient communication, and treatment compliance, various health outcomes, better emotional well-being, lower stress and burnout symptoms, lower blood pressure, and a better quality of life for both doctors and patients.
Patients report that receiving compassionate care from their clinician aids recovery, including an increased sense of responsibility and control over their health, an important finding in terms of the promotion of patient self-management.
Combining clinicians’ technical skills and specialised knowledge with compassion seems to have a greater healing effect than skills alone for both patients and family members.
The field of interpersonal neurobiology researches this phenomenon and has demonstrated that any meaningful relationship can reactivate neuroplastic processes and alter the structure and biochemistry of the brain, for example, positively through compassion and negatively through cruelty.
However, other research shows that empathy declines dramatically as medical students progress through medical school, and this change coincides with students’ and medical residents’ reports of high rates of burnout and psychological distress.