Entering a hospital can be a scary scenario for many of us. While we are unsure of what is going on or unsure of what the outcome will be, it is the hospital’s nurses and doctors we need to put our complete trust in. But what if we are met with some sort of resistance, feeling as if we are a burden? What if we are left feeling that the people who are helping us are actually lacking in empathy?
This isn’t an uncommon circumstance for many, so much so, that it has been dubbed the Compassion Crisis. So what does that mean? It means that doctors and nurses are lacking the emotions of compassion, the feeling that forms when face to face with another human suffering and therefore are motivated to fix that suffering in any way, and empathy, the ability to feel or sense the people around you and imagine or understand others’ thinking or emotions.
The lack of importance of these has now led to a survey showing “nearly half of Americans believe that healthcare providers are not compassionate,” and “two-thirds of Americans have had a meaningful health care experience with a striking lack of compassion.” This is according to a podcast hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Knowledge@Wharton sat down with physician-scientists at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey, Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, to discuss their new book Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference.
In one sense, it is often thought that doctors and nurses need to try and feel less connection to patients due to their own circumstances in dealing with sickness and in many cases deaths. The ability to move on from one patient to the next without it being too big of a burden to them personally is somewhat of a skill they need to possess. However, Trzeciak believes otherwise and states “Empathy is vital because if you don’t detect or understand another’s emotional state, you’re not going to be inclined to take action with compassion to help alleviate it. A study from 2012 published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine found 56% of physicians said they don’t have time for compassion. That was a piece of data among many that indicated to Anthony Mazzarelli and I that there is, in fact, a compassion crisis in health care.”
Though, as we discuss this lack of compassion, where does it come from in the first place? That question consistently seems to be answered with burnout. Burnout, described by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which includes the “packed workdays, demanding pace, time pressures, and emotional intensity—can put physicians and other clinicians at high risk for burnout. Burnout is a long-term stress reaction marked by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a lack of sense of personal accomplishment.” A very real and serious outcome that has become even more rampant since the beginning of the pandemic.
As Trzeciak was feeling these feelings, he took it upon himself to be the first participant of his own experiment and worked hard on caring more for his patients and connecting with them in order to achieve fulfilment in his career. The results were significant as his burnout finally began fading.
However, in a $3.3 trillion dollar industry, compassion isn’t very much a defining factor for organizations and health care systems. Yet, study after study has determined that the relationship between the doctor and patient is of utmost importance to society, and more specifically to their view of the competence of the health care workers. A lack of empathy did not only mean you aren’t trusted but also showed many doctors using more medical resources to find answers rather than speaking to their patients. On top of this, this lack of relationship also followed patients’ trust when at home. The way they took care of themselves was vastly different to a doctor and patient who had good relations. A study out of John Hopkins University which tested on patients with HIV found that those with a positive relationship were “associated with 33% higher odds of adherence to therapy, and 20% higher odds of having no detectable virus in the blood.”
Yet, in a heavily overworked, understaffed, lacking materials industry, how can our health care workers who work so incredibly hard, show compassion? You may think that you either harness compassion and empathy, or you don’t. However, thankfully, compassion can be taught and learned. The focus word that needs to be noted is behaviour. It is not so much about what the caretaker believes in their own minds, but how they react, care and behave towards their patient. How their communication shows compassion and empathy. If you would like to listen to the podcast on the health care compassion crisis and scientific ways in which it can not only help you as a health care worker but overall in the field, click here.
Compassion can be tough to find in the environment we are currently living in, but unfortunately, the lack of has been around for quite some time. Compassion can lead to a lot of positivity, not only in the lives of those who are seeking you out for help and guidance but for your own work environment and mental health. Burnout is a very real thing in the healthcare industry. If showing compassion and creating a connection between you and your patients can help, why not try it? You could be making a world of difference you never thought you could.