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'Can compassion be taught to student nurses?'


Can compassion be taught? Mikey Whitehead, children’s student nurse editor, thinks out loud …

The 6Cs weren’t actually created or founded by Jane Cummings. They were created by a person called Roache.

I’ve spoke about comportment, which Jane Cummings decided not to use in her version. Instead, she chose compassion.

A while ago, I hosted a twitter chat asking whether compassion could be taught to nurses. What do you think?

The general feeling of the chat was that no, it could not be taught. If this is true, then how are we supposed to get over the problem of nurses that are qualified and working, who have no empathy and compassion?

If we cannot teach it, what else are we to do to try and combat the problem?

There were some tweeters that said teaching compassion and empathy was possible.

They thought it something that could be honed and practiced, and therefore taught.

If you use twitter, get in touch with us at @StudentNT or me @STNNurse_Mikey and tell us your thoughts.

What else do you think affects the ability of a nurse to be compassionate? Let us know

Mikey Whitehead is the children’s nursing student nurse editor for Student Nursing Times.


Readers' comments (12)

  • Empathy - the ability to identify with and understand somebody else's feelings or difficulties. This cannot be taught, it is only through life experience that you can have empathy. Perhaps having a minimum age of 21 before you get accepted on to the course so you at least have a little more life experience and a little less attitude.

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  • I don't think age has anything to do with it. I've seen 17 year olds who have it in spades and 55 year olds who have none. What I don't understand is how you can spend a lifetime working in a caring profession if you don't basically like people or have any empathy. For your own sake and the patients', you should find another profession. After all, we promise to do no harm.

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  • Michael Whitehead

    Do you need to have empathy to be a good nurse?

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  • I think the answer is yes, compassion can be taught or 'caught'. I think its innate in humans to have compassion (but sometimes it is killed by some psychological or life experience problem they can't overcome), but in some people it has just become dormant and has to be brought out. Another answer is that if it seems difficult, that's not a reason to give up. We simply have to find ways to 'teach' it if we want to have compassionate nurses in the future. I think there is something to be said for only admitting people to training who have some experience of caring, so that they have some realistic insight into the role. The idea of raising the admission age is great but I wonder if it would be practical, considering how many student nurses we need to recruit each year. As for empathy, I agree that life experience is important, but so is having an imagination. All of us can imagine fear, sadness, pain and suffering. We do this every time we read a book or watch a film or listen to emotional music. Some fantastic midwives have never given birth and many authors of the most realistic war stories have never been to war.
    Teaching methods could use creative media to help students with little real life experience to experience these things imaginatively in order to develop empathy. The reality is that we need too many nurses to only recruit the most compassionate, mature and life experienced. But universities and Trusts do have to be firm in weeding out students through the assessment system, who can't express compassion, despite guidance.

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  • Aaron

    Compassion cannot be taught, but it can be unlocked. You cannot teach compassion, you can only teach students the importance of compassion and how best to allow compassion to inform your practice.

    You learn how best to show and use your compassion, not compassion itself.

    It can also be locked up again by poor working environments and stress.

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  • Aaron

    And I completely agree with Janice that we need to use creative teaching like roleplay to help prepare students to cope with situations to allow their compassion instead of fear/lack of confidence to inform practice.

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  • “Michael Whitehead | 21-May-2013 9:41 pm
    Do you need to have empathy to be a good nurse?”

    Challenging question to which I would answer that you can be excellent technically and with a broad and deep knowledge base without compassion but that is only a part of nursing and without understanding how others and your patients are feeling or their attitudes towards their situation you cannot provide holistic care and would be more suited to a career in research or another field away from the bedside or the management of patient care and human resources. Equally no matter how much empathy you have and have developed, without any technical expertise this would not be helpful and would be totally unsafe safe for patient care.

    My comment on empathy is to follow.

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  • from Anonymous | 22-May-2013 11:45 am

    According to social psychological theory empathy begins to develop at the toddler stage of childhood at around three years. In my limited knowledge in this field, I assume this is related to the separation/individuation process where children start to learn boundaries between themselves and others, ‘my toys’, ‘your toys’, ‘your wants and needs’, and a bit later on ‘your feelings’, all of which may be separate from ‘mine’.

    They learn to share and play together with others including their peers and develop resepect for their differences. These are ‘my’ toys but I will share them with you. I know these are yours and if you share them with me, I will look after and value them as I would my own and will let you have them back when you want to play with them as they are yours and that is your right. We can also play together but I understand when you don’t want to play. I understand when Mummy is tired or has a headache or is busy and doesn’t want to play with me; I can learn to amuse myself (for a while!). These beginnings of awareness and empathy for others must continue to develop through to the teens and young adulthood and carry on throughout life to be further developed by training in particular life situations with which one may not be familiar such as, in the case of the caring professions, individuals’ reactions to different illnesses and accidents, a sudden change in life circumstances, a change of environment such as hospital and different individual styles of coping with these, and appropriate ways in which one can interact with others to show we care and have a desire to accompany them and support them through their difficulties.

    A successful and caring social environment most probably has a strong influence during the development phase of children as to how successful they are in their interactions with others and their ability and desire to show them empathy and compassion and may also be influenced by different encounters with different individuals and their reactions to them which is something we have to learn to control as adults and especially as professionals providing services in healthcare.

    I believe empathy continues to develop and increase throughout life depending on experience of situations self and others are confronted with as well as attitudes we develop towards these which in turn are influence by those of others in our immediate and wider social environment. There must also be a neurobiological component which influences empathy as those suffering from alexithymia or psychopathy may never develop this presumably inherent and latent ability present in early life even though they may be perceived as charming, charismatic individuals who appear to show an interest in others.

    Influential works in this field are from

    The late Israel Orbach and his work with the suicidal patient,

    Imitation, empathy, and mirror neurons.
    Annu Rev Psychol. 2009;60:653-70. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.60.110707.163604.
    Iacoboni M.
    And other publications by this author and his co-researchers

    And the works of Professor Paul Gilbert, OBE, Head of the Mental Health Unit, University of Derby, on empathy and compassion

    The words empathy and compassion are used interchangeably although some hold there are differences. To ensure my own understanding and that we are ascribing the same meanings to them, I quote the definitions with the origins of both from the Concise Oxford Dictionary,11th Edition.

    ? noun sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

    Middle English: via Old French from ecclesiastical Latin compassio(n-), from compati 'suffer with'.

    ? noun the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

    empathetic adjective
    empathetically adverb
    empathic adjective
    empathically adverb

    early 20th cent.: from Greek empatheia (from em- 'in' + pathos 'feeling') translating German Einfühlung.

    People often confuse the words empathy and sympathy. Empathy means 'the ability to understand and share the feelings of another' (as in both authors have the skill to make you feel empathy with their heroines), whereas sympathy means 'feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune' (as in they had great sympathy for the flood victims).

    On a final note, it is my view that all nurses and the profession, in addition to these attributes and all the other skills they possess and develop throughout training, would greatly benefit from developing stronger educationalist and leadership skills with further understanding of the basic theories and concepts of both of these disciplines including a more in-depth knowledge of organisational and interpersonal psychology. They are not only required to manage and teach patient care and inform their own work but need to establish a substantial place and bring greater influence to bear in the organisation in which they work alongside their interdisciplinary colleagues, managers and employers and also in society.

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  • Michael Whitehead

    Do you need to "care" to be a good nurse? I have my answer, but in a life or death situations where critical moments save lives, is it a necessity for nurses to be compassionate or empathetic?

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  • Michael Whitehead | 26-May-2013 6:32 pm

    my answer is yes. if you have these qualities you always have them even though at times and under severe stress you may momentarily not show them. but without them I don't believe you can provide the best care even in critical moments.

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