Compassion isn't the key to NHS failings according to report

September 18, 2013, University of East Anglia

Compassion is not the answer to systemic failings within the NHS, according to a medical ethics expert from the University of East Anglia.

David Cameron has called for nurses to be hired and promoted on the basis of having in response to the Francis Report into failings at mid-Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust.

But Dr Anna Smajdor from UEA's Norwich Medical School argues that the move could be "dangerous" in a paper published today in the journal Clinical Ethics.

She said: "It is wrong to think compassion is the answer to problems in the NHS, such as those displayed in mid-Staffordshire. If Cameron's ideas come to fruition – the compassion served up by healthcare professionals will be at best inauthentic and at worst dangerous.

"Healthcare professionals are responsible for many individuals, working to fulfil many tasks as efficiently as possible - often in situations where time and resources are limited. It would be very dangerous to rely on compassion as the motivation that ensures the necessary tasks are carried out. Reminders, routines and checklists ensure that crucial tasks are undertaken. But if hospitals are fundamentally under-resourced, they will fail to deliver the care that is required.

"Compassion is not a necessary component of healthcare - the crucial tasks can be carried out without compassion. One can remove an appendix without caring about the person from whose body it is taken, empty a bedpan without caring about the patient who has filled it, or provide food without caring about the person who will eat it."

Dr Smajdor's paper describes how the problems at Staffordshire were systemic through the entire institution and its culture. But she says that "it would be bizarre if that particular hospital had come to be staffed entirely by individuals who lacked compassion.

"In fact the report contains many accounts of healthcare professionals' distress – their feeling of depression and . If a lack of compassion was the root cause of the Trust's failings, there would be no reason for these uncaring staff to be suffering such distress."

Indeed, Dr Smajdor believes it can be damaging for healthcare professionals to feel too much compassion – because they may become deeply distressed by some of the things they see and do. They are at risk of suffering burn-out, fatigue, becoming de-sensitised and damaged.

"Imagine feeling the pain of compassion for every child suffering in the world, as if they were your own," she said. "We cannot do it, and if we tried, it would probably kill us. We cannot demand that guarantee an unlimited flow of compassion for each patient.

"David Cameron's plan to incentivise healthcare workers to display compassion is very problematic. Those that do not display it could be excluded from practicing medicine and we may lose many excellent healthcare workers.

"Good healthcare workers will ensure that the presence or absence of compassion does not interfere with their care."

'Reification and compassion in medicine: A tale of two systems' by Dr Anna Smajdor is published in the journal Clinical Ethics on Thursday, September 18, 2013.

Explore further: Celebration of compassion: Unique multimedia eBook presents scientists', practitioners', and therapists' experiences

Related Stories

Celebration of compassion: Unique multimedia eBook presents scientists', practitioners', and therapists' experiences

September 16, 2013
Questions about the difference between empathy and compassion, or about whether compassion can be learned, are now answered by a newly published eBook. Edited by Tania Singer and Matthias Bolz from the Max Planck Institute ...

Suppressing feelings of compassion makes people feel less moral: study

March 15, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- It’s normal to not always act on your sense of compassion—for example, by walking past a beggar on the street without giving them any money. Maybe you want to save your money or avoid engaging ...

Brain can be trained in compassion, study shows

May 22, 2013
Until now, little was scientifically known about the human potential to cultivate compassion—the emotional state of caring for people who are suffering in a way that motivates altruistic behavior.

Staff satisfaction at hospitals may affect the quality of patient care

February 20, 2013
The satisfaction levels among a hospital's staff are closely linked to the quality of healthcare it provides, say a team of doctors from Imperial College London.

Recommended for you

Number of older people with four or more diseases will double by 2035, say researchers

January 23, 2018
A study published today in Age and Ageing, the scientific journal of the British Geriatrics Society, reports that the number of older people diagnosed with four or more diseases will double between 2015 and 2035. A third ...

Placental accumulation of flame retardant chemical alters serotonin production in rats

January 22, 2018
A North Carolina State University-led research team has shown a connection between exposure to a widely used flame retardant chemical mixture and disruption of normal placental function in rats, leading to altered production ...

Marijuana use does not lower chances of getting pregnant

January 22, 2018
Marijuana use—by either men or women—does not appear to lower a couple's chances of getting pregnant, according to a new study led by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) researchers.

Women run faster after taking newly developed supplement, study finds

January 19, 2018
A new study found that women who took a specially prepared blend of minerals and nutrients for a month saw their 3-mile run times drop by almost a minute.

Americans are getting more sleep

January 19, 2018
Although more than one in three Americans still don't get enough sleep, a new analysis shows first signs of success in the fight for more shut eye. According to data from 181,335 respondents aged 15 and older who participated ...

Wine is good for you—to a point

January 18, 2018
The Mediterranean diet has become synonymous with healthy eating, but there's one thing in it that stands out: It's cool to drink wine.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.