“Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity” – Hippocrates
In 1816 René Laennec, a 35-year-old French doctor, invented an instrument that would allow him to listen to a woman’s chest without having to place his ear against her chest, thereby preserving her modesty. “I rolled a quire of paper into a kind of cylinder and applied one end of it to the region of the heart and the other to my ear, and was not a little surprised and pleased to find that I could thereby perceive the action of the heart in a manner much more clear and distinct than I had ever been able to do by the immediate application of my ear,” he wrote in the preface to De l’Auscultation Médiate in 1819. The instrument, which he named the stethoscope, quickly became popular and in the words of medical historian, Stanley Reiser, “led to a seismic shift in how doctors evaluated illness and their relationship with the patient.” In his book Technological Medicine: The Changing World of Doctors and Patients, Reiser expresses concern that over-reliance on technology has replaced openness to the patient as a whole person. The new technology, he wrote, “made doctors more interested in the physical findings of disease than in the life of the patient.
Humanity in healthcare rests on an awareness of patients as human beings first, patients second. Sir William Osler (1849-1919), who is often called the father of modern medicine revolutionised the teaching of medicine by bringing students out of the lecture hall for bedside clinical. One of his most famous sayings was “the good physician treats the disease; the great physician treats the patient who has the disease”. This I believe is the essence of humanity in healthcare – the ability to see beyond the biomedical model of disease to the life into which the disease has intruded. “The foundation of healing”, believes Dr Adrienne Boissy MD, Chief Experience Officer of Cleveland Clinic Health, “begins with reassurance that [patients] have been seen and therefore valued and appreciated for the human that they are beyond the disease”.
I vividly remember the day I was diagnosed with breast cancer twelve years ago. The doctor who delivered the news ignored my tears, and while he spoke, didn’t make eye contact, reassure me or make any other effort to acknowledge my shock and distress. When I remarked on the doctor’s lack of empathy to a family member later that day, he asked me whether I would rather be cared for by a skilled surgeon with a poor bedside manner or a caring and compassionate surgeon with adequate but not exceptional surgical skills. Does it have to come down to a choice between compassion or competence? Can’t we have both?
Compassion and empathy should be at the core of any good therapeutic relationship, but as Dr Rita Charon, founder of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University, wrote in a 2001 paper for The Journal of the American Medical Association, “despite medicine’s recent dazzling technological progress in diagnosing and treating illnesses, physicians sometimes lack the capacities to recognize the plights of their patients, to extend empathy toward those who suffer, and to join honestly and courageously with patients in their illnesses.” Dr Charon believes that “a medicine practiced without a genuine awareness of what patients go through may fulfil its technical goals but it is an empty medicine, or at best, half a medicine.”
Clinical empathy has been defined as the ability to stand in a patient’s shoes and to convey an understanding of the patient’s situation. It means not just recognising that the patient is suffering, but acknowledging the distress and moving to address it. The ability to listen and empathize is central to establishing trust in the clinical encounter, and yet these skills are undervalued and often ignored in traditional medical education. In years past, clinical empathy was simply viewed as having a good bedside manner, a “nice to have” rather than a “must-have” trait in medicine, but a wave of recent scientific research has now shown positive correlations between empathy and improved patient outcomes, satisfaction and adherence. A study conducted with diabetic patients showed they had better control over their illness and fewer diabetes-related complications requiring hospitalisation if their doctor scored high on cognitive empathy. In another study, patients who rated their surgeons as highly caring during their stay in the hospital were 20 times more likely to rate their surgery outcome as positive. And empathy is not just beneficial to patients, a 2013 study suggests that doctors with higher empathy levels—meaning that they are aware of their patients’ emotional needs and respond appropriately to their concerns—experience less stress, cynicism, and burnout than those with less empathy.
An extensive scientific literature review conducted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University demonstrates that “when patients are treated with kindness — when there is an effort made to get to know them, empathize with them, communicate with them, listen to them and respond to their needs — it can lead to faster healing of wounds, reduced pain, reduced anxiety, reduced blood pressure, and shorter hospital stays.” The research also shows that when doctors and nurses act compassionately, patients are more likely to be forthcoming in divulging medical information, which in turn leads to more accurate diagnoses. They are more likely to adhere to their prescribed treatments, which leads to fewer readmissions. The authors of the review conclude that “kindness shouldn’t be viewed as a warm and fuzzy afterthought, something nice to show after the “real” medicine is administered. Instead, kindness should be viewed as an indispensable part of the healing process.”
More recently, Mills and Chapman in an editorial published in the Australasian Medical Journal, go beyond kindness and empathy to a call for compassion in medicine. They draw a distinction between empathy, which relates to an awareness of another’s experience, and compassion which relates specifically to contexts of suffering and the alleviation of it. “Compassion is more than just kindness,” they write, “it involves cognition, affect, intention, and motivation; that in a context of suffering, relate to the alleviation of that suffering.” In an article in Modern Healthcare, Julie Rosen, executive director of the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare, writes that compassion is the foundation of good medical care “recognizing the concerns, distress and suffering of patients and their families and taking action to relieve them”.
I believe compassion in medicine is based on acknowledging the difference between illness as a diagnostic entity, and illness as the way in which the disease is perceived and responded to by a person. In limiting its focus to the physiological effects of illness, medicine often overlooks the human experience of illness and is in danger of losing sight of the person with the illness. The late neurologist, Oliver Sacks addressed this failing when he observed that “medicine has shifted its focus to getting to know and treat a disease instead of getting to know and treat the person with the disease”. This echoes Donald Evans in his book Values in Medicine: What are we Really Doing to Patients? who writes, “the contribution of science to the development of medicine has made remarkable strides in the delivery of effective health care, but it has also tended to remove the patient’s experience of illness from centre stage.”
The practice of medicine is both a science of knowledge and the art of humanity. For too long we have trained doctors and nurses to see illness through a bio-medical lens which reduces patients to a set of symptoms without taking into account the wider emotional and social aspects of illness. Attending to how patients experience their illness within the context of their lives, rather than the narrow confines of symptoms, provides a richer perspective within which to learn how to care for the person with the illness. Collectively we must learn to cultivate the skills that are essential for humane medical care – empathy, dignity, respect, caring, kindness, compassion, and above all, a willingness to see and understand the person behind the patient. Repeated cases of failure in health and social care have revealed a common failing – staff lost sight of the person and stopped responding to patients as people. Building a culture of compassion doesn’t involve any large capital outlay, but in reframing medicine through this human lens we will reap a greater reward in terms of meaning, context, and healing in healthcare.