Compassion Corner: Should Care be Patient Centric? Does Compassion Matter?

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Compassion [kuhmpash-uhn] noun
A feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

Compassion Corner is a new weekly series from Patient Worthy that will focus on the subject of compassion in the healthcare and rare disease space. In this series, we explore the role of compassion in this field and what it means for caregivers, patients, and others.



An article about compassion in healthcare recently appeared in the Global Agenda section of the World Economic Forum (WE). The article begins by asking the question: why would compassion be relevant in medicine?

Emphasizing the importance of compassion may seem contrary to doctors who value being technically proficient. They hold their profession in the highest esteem and maintain a respectable distance over and above their patients.

Some people believe that compassion is in-born, but compassion can be and has been taught successfully.

About Mirror Neurons

The example of Mirror Neurons can be used as a pathway to empathy. Mirror neurons were identified in the early nineties by a group of Italian researchers. The team found that individual neurons in the brains of monkeys were activated when the monkeys touched or grabbed an object. But the same reaction occurred in the brains of monkeys as they watched another monkey grab an object.

Mirror neurons are present in the brains of humans and are located in areas that govern emotions. We can recognize the emotions of others and we can also ‘tune in’ to a certain extent on their feelings. These achievements provide the neurophysiological platform for empathy.

About Compassion

It has been observed that compassionate doctors:

  1. May reduce postoperative pain;
  2. Boost the chance of survival in some cancer patients
  3. Lower the mortality rate in high-risk cardiac patients
  4. Cut hospitalization rates for diabetics
  5. Boost the immune system

But the article cautions not to confuse compassion with commiseration or pity.

Dr. Robert Youngson’s Campaign

Dr. Youngson is an anesthesiologist who began a campaign to bring compassion to healthcare. Dr. Youngson divided doctors in his research into categories:

  • Doctors who are empathetic and understand that empathy means to focus on the patient
  • The second group of doctors have attended a qualified doctor/patient communications course.

And yes, doctor/patient communication skills can be taught. Doctor/patient communication affects the healing process. Just taking a few extra minutes to listen and speak with patients is reassuring.

There are, of course, extenuating circumstances that cause doctors to lose their willingness to be compassionate. Many doctors have lost the freedom to spend compassionate time with patients. They are forced to see as many patients as possible and order unnecessary tests.

Students are negatively affected by a depersonalized education system resulting in a lack of a role models and therefore a lack of enthusiasm prior to receiving their degree.

Compassion and Pharma

These arguments are supported by scientific literature and can apply to individual professionals and organizations. Values, behavior, and personality depend upon individual performances which in turn lead to either success or failure for an organization.

Taking a step back, for some time now, healthcare has been promoting the catchphrase ‘patient centricity which is a very distant relative of compassion. The official definition of patient centricity is that it is a process that designs the solution or service with a focus entirely on the patient.

Major pharma companies such as AstraZeneca and Sanofi have often expressed their desire to be patient centric but somehow the concept is overlooked.

Some of the problems that have surfaced are communication difficulties, skepticism, and unwillingness by doctors or pharma to give up control.

Dr. Irvin D. Yalom

Dr. Yalom, Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, emphasizes qualitative relationships above theory. Dr. Yalom believes that a good relationship requires a doctor to have a strong will to relieve suffering.

The Three Main Ingredients

Carl Rogers, an American psychologist, set forth his theory of three ingredients for a doctor/patient relationship: honesty, empathy, and genuineness.

This falls in line with the motto of the Royal College of General Practitioners which is: “Cum Scientia Caritas – Compassion with Knowledge’.

Looking Forward

Youngson, Rogers, and Yalom have joined the debate on how to improve medical training to include compassion. Notwithstanding the current Fourth Industrial Revolution that is headlined in many World Economic articles, researchers claim that there is still room for compassion.


Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia four years ago. He was treated with a methylating agent While he was being treated with a hypomethylating agent, Rose researched investigational drugs being developed to treat relapsed/refractory AML.

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