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Is the focus on compassion a red herring?

  • Comments (7)

An emphasis on compassion could actually be dangerous to the NHS, according to a medical ethics expert.

Dr Anna Smajdor, from Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, believes compassion is not necessarily the key to solving the NHS’s problems - especially if it is to the detriment of other important duties.

“Healthcare professionals are responsible for many individuals, working to fulfil many tasks as efficiently as possible - often in situations where time and resources are limited. It would be very dangerous to rely on compassion as the motivation that ensures the necessary tasks are carried out” she said.

In many ways it can actually be harmful for healthcare professionals to feel too much compassion, she concluded, because they may become deeply distressed by some of the things they witness, and are at risk of suffering burnout and fatigue, as well as becoming de-sensitised and damaged.

What do you think? Is the focus on compassion in healthcare a red herring?

  • Comments (7)

Readers' comments (7)

  • Anonymous

    We can't win can we, damned if we do and damned if we don't, I give up!

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  • Using one's intellect to control emotional outbursts does not mean one is discompassionate. Using one's intellect to process distress, burnout and fatigue in private do not mean we are damaged or de-sensitized. If your only coping mechanism is denial, then yes, you may better suited to another career.
    I think this piece SCREAMS that we need higher education in nursing, so we will all have the vocabulary to describe the constructs and paradigms within which we deliver heartfelt, compassionate care.

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  • Anonymous

    "Is the focus on compassion a red herring?"

    Yes. Because it ignores the cultural, systemic and fundamental causes of poor care where it occurs.

    With regard to the comment about 'higher education'. I think 'better' education would be more appropriate. Nursing isn't rocket science and doesn't need to be. Better resourced, better supported staff in sufficient numbers......not rocket science.

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  • Anonymous

    Humans generally appreciate being treated with some degree of kindness in most situations in life.....in conjunction with competance in whatever service they require.What happened to the holistic approach...packed into a storage press of a productive ward ?No doubt it will be pulled out again when a boffin pronounces it worthy.

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  • Anon 3-10 2013 10:33

    Spot on I agree! It's not rocket science and I've been saying that for years.

    Yes the obsession with compassion is a red herring, used by the government and the media to detract from the impossible situation that healthcare workers are being put in by poor leadership and political shenanigans.

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  • Bad things are more likely to happen in environments where 'compassion' (we all know it when we see it, even if we can't quantify it) is decidedly lacking or is prevented from flourishing. However, compassion is not the real issue here and the government is very wrong to use the issue as a stick to beat healthcare workers for blatant systemic failings... much in the same way they are doing with welfare claimants and teachers, amongst many others.

    However, Dr Smajdor's attempts to reduce the true value of compassion in healthcare is equally disappointing. Compassion, or empathy for others, is what separates those who simply do their jobs in a functional and professional manner, from those who actively ‘give of themselves’ to others. It’s this element of giving or sharing… or the transfer of positive energy from one person to another… which has been shown time and time again to aid healing, promote faster recovery times and ultimately generate greater overall confidence in the healthcare system. This has huge benefits for us all.
    A patient is more than a set of tasks.

    The opposite of an 'empathic' (compassionate) approach is 'apathy'. This is a charge that is not often associated with those we generally regard as compassionate people. In contrast, in a predominantly ‘task' focused environment healthcare professionals may be more inclined to keep their heads down and sometimes even look the other way when bad things are happening around them. They may be too focused on a list of tasks, meeting targets and pleasing their masters; not necessarily the patient. Unfortunately, in a system creaking at the seams with an ever increasing number of patients presenting with increasingly complex health needs, compassion is being subjugated to the demands of completing more and more tasks.

    The solution is a lot simpler than David Cameron and the academics think. It’s simply about giving health professionals the time and space to care, by addressing the institutional and structural issues that support and undermine compassionate behaviour. If these issues were to be finally taken seriously, we might then find the more ‘academic’ and 'task' oriented amongst us becoming a little bit more compassionate in their approach as they are freed up to get to know their patients better, and perhaps for some, for the very first time.

    Of course this isn't likely to happen any time soon. It's not the way things work in UK PLC. It's far easier and far cheaper to blame nurses (not doctors, physios, managers etc), who have a long history of being much less likely, or being much too busy, to stick up for themselves.



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  • I've been a patient after an RTA when my body was doing things I didn't understand and I was in a lot of pain.

    The last thing I needed was some soppy ninny standing by my bed being compassionate, but with no idea what to do about my care! It's very scary when you have to give instructions from the talking end while your body is helpless to care for itself.

    I'd be happy to trade real expert bedside knowledge for clueless bedside compassion any day.

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