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Can we teach the next generation of nurses compassion?

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With reviews and reports throwing up questions about whether there exists a lack of compassion in healthcare, Emma Vincent asks if compassion truly is something that can be taught.

The definition of compassion can be different for each nurse. For me, it is a concept of warmth and virtue; the values that are integral to the care I provide.

There is a great deal of talk nationally around enhancing compassion in health care, but is compassion something that can be taught in the student nurse curriculum? And if so, how?

One of the important roles of mentors is helping their students to clarify their own definition of compassion – what it means to them and how they feel and reflect upon matters of compassion. This can be achieved through student mentorship or by encouraging them to keep a journal – what compassion did I see on today’s shift? Could I mirror that care? Would I have added to that compassion?

Mentors can create an environment to enhance skills of compassion by helping students to act on their reflections – sharing the positive aspects they see and creating a culture of non-blame for the challenging aspects they may also witness.

Helping students to understand how environment change can alter levels of compassion is also important.

“Highlighting issues should not be seen as a negative action, rather an action that aids understanding”

Perhaps there is low staffing in an area or changes have been made to the team structure. Compassion’s greatest challenge is arguably time.

Highlighting issues should not be seen as a negative action, rather an action that aids understanding. And despite staff shortages, students may in fact witness high levels of compassion, where teams pull together and support one another.

Compassion is therefore not exclusive to patients, it extends to ourselves and to those we work alongside.

Nor is compassion bound to a single need of the patient, (such as a patient’s respiratory problems). As nurses we assess patients holistically, and we act in accordance to their need.

“As nurses we assess patients holistically, and we act in accordance to their need”

Patients often have complex multisystem diseases, but they also have psychosocial requirements that may influence their recovery. As mentors we need to help students make this assessment, cope with the patient’s expectations and help them recognise where their own limitations of care are – as we do ourselves.

As nurses, experienced or new, we need to try and ensure we work against this restraint as much as possible. As mentors we can help our students to avoid the combined pressures of work, study and social adjustments (perhaps moving away from home for the first time) – all of which may affect the compassion they are trying to develop.

Should we also aid ‘love’ in compassion? Not in the true sense of the word, but the desire to work and to want to meet the needs of the patient.

Aiding our students to develop a professional resilence, teaching them the core principles of the NHS, i.e. we have the professional responsibly to adhere to targets, but not to the detriment of our patients.

“The simple contact of taking a pulse manually could mean more to a patient than measuring this with a machine”

In our students training there is also a focus upon critical thinking, evidence and science, but there is also a drive to meet basic human needs. The simple contact of taking a pulse manually for example could mean more to a patient than measuring this with a machine. The basics, human touch, should never be underestimated, or forgotten when we are sharing our skills of compassion.

With compassion comes kinship, common ground.

By aiding our students to care for one another, to take pride in their profession and to respect the ideas of all, we may increase to number of positive role models.

Compassion is a reflection upon values, warmth and virtue. By helping students to understand the barriers we can enhance their compassionate resilence.

The debate continues as to whether compassion can be taught or has to already exist. I believe it is there in everyone, but it often needs to be understood and supported holistically.

Emma Vincent is an interstitial lung disease nurse specialist

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