Compassionate healthcare is not the easy option

Compassion is a hot topic. A quick Google search throws up over 87 million references. Healthcare providers are increasingly promoting it as central to care. Yet, until recently, it has been ‘one of the most referenced yet poorly understood elements of quality care’, says Shane Sinclair and his Canadian team in Compassion in Health Care: an Empirical Model.

Compassion, said the patients in this research is, ‘a virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action’. That sounds admirable but hints at a mutual vulnerability that would push at the traditional professional/patient divide.

Suffering is an unavoidable part of the human condition. It is a daily reality in a hospital. As a spiritual care practitioner, it might mean tending to a victim of crime, encouraging self-compassion with staff, listening as someone wrestles with holding onto life or helping a family say what matters to them as they sit with their dying parent. The list is endless.

It would only be remarkable if these things weren’t happening because people only visit us when they are suffering in some way or another. Some suffering can be alleviated by medical intervention and facilitating a person’s journey through the system with kindness. Some suffering cannot. To help cope, people value and want compassionate care.

Compassion said the participants in the Canadian study relied on virtues, ‘good or noble qualities embodied in the character of the health care professional’. Things like genuineness, love, honesty, openness, care, authenticity, understanding, tolerance, kindness and acceptance. In addition, people want to be aware of and engaged by the virtues of the healthcare provider. To be treated as a person with unique needs. In other words, one size does not fit all.

However, Robin Youngson, founder of Hearts in Healthcare, believes that ‘the existing healthcare system is fundamentally incompatible with compassion, healing and wellbeing’. He suggests that there are four drivers shaping the system and working against compassionate care; materialistic and reductive science, the industrialisation of healthcare, profit motives and the heroic model of medical professionalism.

Even so, patients are clear that whilst compassionate care is not a panacea to suffering it has an ameliorating effect and enhances wellbeing and ‘the quality of their relationships with their health care providers’.

Compassionate healthcare is not the easy option as it ‘implores vulnerability on the part of healthcare providers to engage and relate to patient suffering from a place of shared humanity’. It’s clear that the compassionate approach being called for significantly challenges the way health care is constructed and the way providers are trained. To embrace that vulnerability and change means that people will ‘feel whole …. valued and loved’. That’s hard to argue with.

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