Compassion Corner: Compassion versus Depersonalization in Healthcare

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 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.



According to an article in Novant Health’s Healthy Headlines, Mayo Clinic conducted a three-month study of 7,905 surgeons in the U.S. pitting compassion against depersonalization in the care of patients.

The researchers noted that physicians who think of their patients as being objects tend to make major errors. This depersonalization effect applies to surgeons also. The Mayo Clinic study found that surgeons who depersonalized their patients committed three times the number of errors than the surgeons who were compassionate. Most of the errors were attributed to a lapse in the surgeon’s judgment.

 The Stanford University Study (2014)

Researchers at Stanford University noted that patients who are treated with kindness and compassion heal faster, are less anxious, and have a diminished level of pain.

We therefore can consider compassion to be the “best medicine.” Of course, medicine is powerful and can cure. Yet the way in which the medicine is delivered can also have curative effects. Novant’s research suggests that most patients judge their medical experience according to the relationship they established with their health care team. Upon completion of their medical procedures, the study shows that patients who received compassionate care were more likely to follow through on the medical advice they received from their providers.

The Pandemic

When we look at the suggestion that doctors and nurses must have more time to build a relationship with their patients, we cannot help but think of the medical staff on the “front line” during the pandemic. These healthcare workers can be the last person the patients’ see in their lifetime. There can be no doubt that these moments should be filled with compassion.

About the Team

Patient care usually begins with the provider giving medical and emotional support as well as providing a treatment plan. Team members include social workers, pharmacists, referral coordinators, and dietitians.

The Washington Post carried an article featuring a new book called Compassionomics written by the scientist-physician team of Anthony Mazzarelli and Stephen Trzeciak. The theme of the book gives evidence that compassion has tremendous healing power.

The book suggests that kindness results not only in healthier patients but also healthier lives for healthcare providers. Compassion brings faster recuperation and less burnout for the doctors.

The Doctors’ Interview With the Post

Dr. Trzeciak gave their definition of compassion as being slightly different from empathy. Both emotions are a response to someone’s pain, but compassion includes taking action.

Dr. Trzeciak added that neuroscience research via MRI scans supports these statements. For example, pain centers are activated in a person’s brain when he or she is experiencing empathy. But if the emotion being experienced is compassion, a different area in the brain is activated. It is known as the ‘reward’ pathway.

Does Compassion Matter?

After curating over 1,000 research abstracts and 250 papers from medical journals the doctors felt confident that compassion does matter both in measurable and meaningful ways.

The Post interviewer asked how a new patient would select a compassionate physician. The doctors advised looking for certain behaviors such as making eye contact, sitting and facing the patient while speaking, and allowing the patient to speak without interruption.

 A 2018 Mayo Clinic study found that doctors interrupt patients on average eleven seconds after they begin to speak. It should be noted that a patient can typically describe their most important medical concern within twenty-nine seconds.

Burnout Rates

The doctors were asked their opinion about healthcare providers’ burnout rates. Dr. Mazzarelli responded that compassion establishes fulfillment in medical practice and provides resistance to burnout.

Dr. Trzeciak added that they disagree with the view that compassion can cause burnout. He stated that research has proven the opposite occurs.

Dr. Mazzarelli commented that compassion relates to lower medical bills. Patients who have confidence in their doctors were found to use fewer services. Their average medical bills were fifty percent lower during the study period.

Drs. Mazzarelli and Trzeciak used another study to prove that point. They explained that since the recovery time is shorter, it amounts to fewer tests, visits, and referrals. In fact, specialist referrals were fifty-nine percent lower and diagnostic testing was eighty-four percent lower.


Rose Duesterwald

Rose Duesterwald

Rose became acquainted with Patient Worthy after her husband was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML) six years ago. During this period of partial remission, Rose researched investigational drugs to be prepared in the event of a relapse. Her husband died February 12, 2021 with a rare and unexplained occurrence of liver cancer possibly unrelated to AML.

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