More and more, the importance of kindness and compassion in patient treatment is being touted as a necessity, and even scientific reports have jumped on the bandwagon, providing piece after piece evidence to prove this. In this article, Dr Jennifer Winter brings us through why this is so vital, from a doctor's perspective.

Kindness is no foreign term to the medical field, as it is a cornerstone in good medical practice. In practice, the main way in which doctors and other healthcare providers can exercise kindness towards patients is by showing compassion to them. Studies have shown that compassionate care is likely to lead to better patient outcomes and adherence to treatment regimes. Additionally, how doctors communicate to the rest of the care team is also capable of influencing patient outcomes, as well as work relationships and the culture of the healthcare system.

Proper communication with medical staff and patients

This kindness and compassion should not be limited to any one group - Healthcare providers should make the effort to be kind to both colleagues and patients alike. Essentially, the medical setting is already a stressful one, and negative acts such as shouting at colleagues or stirring up arguments will only lead to complications at work. More than this, healthcare providers are often required to work in a team, making it even more necessary that they have good relations with one another.

During patient interviews, it is even more essential that the healthcare providers inculcate a positive relationship with the patients. This is a crucial, yet often forgotten measure, especially for medical students or those working in stressful, heavily patient-loaded settings. In such cases, conversation tends to be straightforward, and maybe a little too short: “Why did you come to the ER?”, “When were you diagnosed with heart failure?”, “What operation did you undergo?” and so on. Although these are all valid and important medical questions, the way they are delivered tends to be overly direct, making the deliverer seem callous or unfeeling. If kindness and compassion were employed here, it would be more likely that the patient's emotions would receive more attention, which is likely what a frazzled, terrified, suffering patient needs.  

When dealing with chronically ill patients, even more compassion needs to be employed, especially with those who suffer from cancer – a person with cancer will require many repeat visits with doctors, many hospitalisations, a large number of surgeries, as well as endless treatments such as chemotherapy sessions. This makes it even more vital for them to feel the compassion from the medical personnel around them, something that staff need take note of. One of the most important things to remember is to refrain from being excessively technical with these patients, for example, pulling out their medical records and start chanting off pertinent data from there to them, such as what type of cancer they have, when they were diagnosed, the number of sessions of chemotherapy they have undergone and so on. Whatever happened to the simplest queries of all, like how is the patient doing, or how can they help to make the patient more comfortable, beyond just treating the obvious?

Infusing this into the medical student’s curriculum

Medical school consists of years of building the foundation of medical knowledge. Students learn the normal anatomy and physiology of a person and later dwell into what goes wrong by understanding pathology. Mentors impart medical knowledge by sharing real-life experiences in practice and how they dealt with them. However, what appears to be missing in the midst of all this learning, are the correct attitudes and values when dealing with others as a medical professional.

Joseph and Edna Josephson from the Institute of Ethics have observed that "An unprecedented proportion of today`s young generation lacks commitment to core moral values such as honesty, respect for others, personal responsibility and civic duty.” In short, the level of morality in today’s youth is said to be weak and just getting worse. Doctors, above all, require a steadfast strong moral fiber to be a good doctor, and the best time to make sure this is inculcated in them is when they are still in the education system.

Although most medical schools may have a subject dedicated to ethics, this is often not seen as something that is top priority, nor is it infused into other clinical subjects, consequently causing the lack of many traits such as empathy, ability to establish rapport, or even showing compassion in medical practice.

Medical schools are aiming to train top-notch doctors, but to be truly part of the crème de la crème, a doctor needs to be well-rounded not just technically, but also emotionally. In an effort towards this, an Emory infectious disease specialist by the name of Dr. Monica Farley has worked with a faculty committee to develop a curriculum known as a “hidden curriculum”, aiming for medical students to spend more quality time with mentors and model their behavior. "In our minds, the most important thing was to incorporate mentoring into the curriculum—not just a hit or miss thing where students would have to schedule an appointment with an advisor," she said.

Closer to home in Singapore, efforts are also being made to train medical students in empathy, by using actors as patients, training them with a script and conducting tests on the students to increase their awareness in such situations. MIMS

Read more:
Teaching medical students without lectures
7 inspiring reads written by doctors
The art of empathy to become a better healthcare professional

-Torrance, "Fostering compassion in young doctors”, Emory Health, 2012
- Burack, "Teaching Compassion and Respect: Attending Physicians’ Responses to Problematic Behaviors”, J Gen Intern Med. 1999 Jan; 14(1): 49–55.
- Abrams, "Lack Of Moral Values In Young Cited In Ethics Institute Report”, Los Angeles Times