Compassion in Patient Care


Compassion is a characteristic that encompasses empathy, sympathy and a genuine emotional concern for another’s pain or suffering, along with a strong desire to help alleviate the discomfort. It comes from a Latin phrase meaning “co-suffering”. It is considered a virtue to be empathetic toward others during their times of distress. Of course, this is not uniquely reserved for the health professions, but it is a frequent requirement in this field because of the inherent nature of illness to cause suffering. Since health professionals take care of suffering people on a daily basis, it seems that empathetic concern should be one of the prerequisites for the job. Often however, it is not. Medical students and residents are rarely if ever lectured or tested on this as a basic component of bedside manner. It’s expected to be one of those things that students, if they don’t already have it, just pick up from their mentors somewhere along the way.

This begs the question of whether this virtue is a learned characteristic or is it part of a person’s genetic makeup. I suspect it’s a little of both. However much of it that a student may have inherently, it certainly is something that can be enhanced by emphasizing its importance and showing how it can be used therapeutically in many situations.

The compassionate physician with the same knowledge and experience as the dispassionate one is in most cases certainly going to be more effective therapeutically in providing patient care. If patients perceive that the doctor is concerned for their welfare, they are much more likely to follow the doctor’s plan. The trust and confidence that patients have in their physician is directly related to the degree of concern that they believe their physician has for them.

Sometimes, it’s not easy to be empathetic, particularly if there is lack of respect on one side of the relationship or the other. If the doctor feels his patient is angry, manipulative or excessively demanding, the ability of the physician to have compassion for that individual tends to drop considerably. The doctor has to remain understanding in that relationship and go beyond the surface of the situation. Even though the patient may not have the most loving personality in the world, they are still suffering in some way and we need to respond to that suffering, isolating that from other emotions, and still attempting to provide comfort for that suffering in whatever way we can. The physician’s tolerance for these “difficult” relationships often determines how “popular” the physician is and what kind of practice s/he develops.

There are always trade-offs related to this. If a physician is perceived to be caring and concerned, s/he will gain an excellent reputation as such, but this often means that the more “difficult” patients will gravitate to that practice because the physician has a greater tolerance for those individuals than do other physicians in the community. This may be an unfortunate side effect of being too “nice”.

The physician needs to take great care to be objective and a little detached in spite of his/her caring nature. There may be a tendency to give people what they want rather than following careful medical guidelines. We shouldn’t confuse compassion with our desire to be liked by patients. Nor should we confuse it with medical servitude.

Despite these cautions, the physician who is compassionate will be much more therapeutic and more thoughtful in patient care than those who are not and will be more highly regarded among patients and colleagues alike. I highly recommend it.


This page was last updated on May 24, 2011.


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