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On Compassion

Compassion is a word for a very positive emotion that has to do with being thoughtful and decent. When you have compassion, you’re putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and really feeling for them. When you feel compassion for someone, you really want to help them. Giving to a charity takes compassion. Volunteering to work with sick people or animals takes compassion. Anytime a disaster like a hurricane or earthquake hits, others will feel compassion for the victims.

Compassion is one of the most important attributes for physicians practicing their profession. Physicians generally identify their central duties as the responsibility to put the patients’ interests first, including the duty not to harm, deliver proper care and maintain confidentiality. Physicians who demonstrate compassion understand the effects of sickness and suffering on human behavior. The relationship between suffering patients and their caregivers provides evidence that compassion is a social emotion, which is highly related to closeness between individuals. Compassion motivates people to go out of their way to help the physical, mental or emotional pains of another.

From time immemorial, physicians were known and respected for their compassion. But unfortunately, with the paradigm shift of physicians becoming employees rather than self-employed, we often seem to neglect this aspect of our virtue and succumb to the rules and regulations imposed by others. Physicians as employees are more likely to play to the tune of employers with their guidelines and regulations. We seem to adhere to the restrictions imposed on us without realizing the implications. Employers will more likely seek for the financial gain rather than mundane virtues.

This change in our attitude caught my attention while reading the graduation address given at Yale Medical School, New Haven, Conn., by Dr. Donald Berwick. In that talk, he emphasized how we are losing that touch of compassion. He describes the experience of an elderly woman whose husband – also a physician – died after a lengthy illness in the ICU setting. During this time, the wife was only allowed brief periods of visit to her husband. The wife insisted that she was not just a visitor but rather his life companion and from whom she was never separated. She maintained that the couple’s forced separation was very cruel, and her only request was to share his last days and moments together.

Unfortunately, they were denied the quality time together in his last days because she was told, “it is our hospital policy,” and “it is against the regulations.” What is irrational is not those phrases, but what follows those phrases, in ellipsis unsaid: “It is our policy … you cannot hold your husband’s hand.” “It is against the rules … to let you see this or to let you know this.” “It would be a problem … if we treated you on your own terms not ours.”

We will come across instances such as this as part of our daily routine. During those moments, we need to recall such stories and be compassionate and empathetic to the needs of families, instead of saying, “Sorry, your 30 minutes are up.”

Physicians need to be something other than a doctor; they need to be a healer. And to become a healer, we must do something even more difficult than putting on our white coat. We must take off our white coat.When we do take off our white coat, we become a healer.

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