When we were in medical school, there were no especial classes on compassion. And yet besides the proper knowledge and background in the science of medicine, being able to treat your patients with compassion is obviously very important part of a health care worker’s job description. But teaching about compassion is easier said than done. In the first place some would even question whether compassion can be taught. Even if this feeling of compassion is innate, all of us engaged in medical practice can try to strengthen this feeling and bring it to the fore when helping our patients.
Compassion comes from Latin from around the 14 th century. Com means “with” and passion is “suffering”. So basically “compassion” means “suffering with” or a” co-sufferer”.Clearly a doctor cannot be very emotionally involved with his or her patient’s situation because then this may interfere with rational, proper treatment of the patient’s condition. But in many doctor patient encounters it may not be excessive emotional involvement but unfortunately an utter lack of care in the doctor’s part for the feelings of the patient in question.
Another word almost synonymous with compassion is empathy and the research on empathy is thriving these days. Many think that cognitive neuroscience is undergoing a revolutionary change. Some of the same neural systems that are activated in ourselves when we are in physical pain become engaged when we observe the suffering of others. Many researchers are also working on how empathy develops in chimpanzees and other primates, how it may be elaborated in children and the circumstances that trigger empathy.
The word empathy although similar to compassion in meaning is only a century old and it is a rendering of the German Einfuhlung, “a feeling into”. It is probably a notch below compassion in the intensity of feeling generated for the suffering of others.Many health care professionals have been interested for decades in the moral implications of properlyunderstanding and sympathizing with our patients to be able to help them more effectively. However one could argue that today our preoccupation with biomedical medicine ( the science of medicine) has clearly diminished the compassion and empathy part of medicine. But a deep sympathy for the suffering of our patients has to be an essential quality of the modern technology of medicine.
Often it has been said that more mistakes in medicine are made by those who do not care than those who do not know. Many of us whether involved in the practice of medicine or not would agree that treating patients with care and understanding can relieve much of their emotional suffering and make an important contribution to the recovery of the patient, often times rivaling the effect of the drugs ( although scientifically this may be hard to prove). But in practical terms not everything requires scientific proof if the outcome is successful with no harm done.
One of the best known faces today, President Barack Obama, often speaks very articulately ( as is his characteristic style) about empathy. Two years ago in a commencement address at Xavier University he emphasized the importance of seeing the world through the eyes of others who are different from us. Clearly when health care professionals choose to broaden their ambit of concern and truly sympathize with the plight of the patients, we will have taken a giant step forward. All health care professionals in all humility need to be able “to cure sometimes, to relieve often, but to comfort always”.