Patients Deserve Compassion, but Can It Be Taught to Doctors?

Every patient and every doctor know that delivering bad news is something that physicians sometimes have to do. But too many doctors don’t realize that the way they communicate can cause terrible and needless emotional injury.

A flat, heartless delivery of bad news can make patients feel abandoned and devastated. A touch of compassion, on the other hand, may not extend a patient’s life by a single day, but does make them feel that they are still part of the community of the living.

Patient advocates say that Compassion is one of the four C’s that patients have a right to expect. (The others are: Competence, Communication and Convenience.)

William Branch, an internist and professor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, has conducted studies for two decades to determine if physicians can be taught to be more compassionate.

Dr. Branch maintains that “our healthcare system does not lack compassion,” and that compassion can be taught, though not in a single training session.

In research conducted at five medical schools in 2009, Branch studied two sets of faculty members on their compassion skills as evaluated by their medical students and residents. The students watched the faculty members interact with patients, and they scored those interactions plus the quality of their direct teaching of caring skills.

One faculty group underwent a two-year program that combined experiential learning of skills such as role modeling along with reflective exploration of values through writing narratives and other activities. The other group had no intervention. The study found that the compassion-training group rated significantly more compassionate with their patients.

However, just as it can be taught, compassion also can be lost. A 2008 study of 419 medical students showed that women had twice the empathy scores of men and that scores declined at the end of the third year, when students had begun regular exposure to patients during clinical rotations – exactly at the point where they needed more, not less, empathy. But this trend can be prevented; another study of 209 students at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School found that empathy was maintained among third-year students who received specialized training.

Source: Washington Post

You can read Dr. Branch’s research paper in Academic Medicine here.

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