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

September 18, 2013

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

High-fat diet in pregnancy can cause mental health problems in offspring

July 21, 2017
A high-fat diet not only creates health problems for expectant mothers, but new research in an animal model suggests it alters the development of the brain and endocrine system of their offspring and has a long-term impact ...

To combat teen smoking, health experts recommend R ratings for movies that depict tobacco use

July 21, 2017
Public health experts have an unusual suggestion for reducing teen smoking: Give just about any movie that depicts tobacco use an automatic R rating.

Opioids and obesity, not 'despair deaths,' raising mortality rates for white Americans

July 20, 2017
Drug-related deaths among middle-aged white men increased more than 25-fold between 1980 and 2014, with the bulk of that spike occurring since the mid-1990s when addictive prescription opioids became broadly available, according ...

Aging Americans enjoy longer life, better health when avoiding three risky behaviors

July 20, 2017
We've heard it before from our doctors and other health experts: Keep your weight down, don't smoke and cut back on the alcohol if you want to live longer.

Parents have critical role in preventing teen drinking

July 20, 2017
Fewer teenagers are drinking alcohol but more needs to be done to curb the drinking habits of Australian school students, based on the findings of the latest study by Adelaide researchers.

Fresh fish oil lowers diabetes risk in rat offspring

July 19, 2017
Fresh fish oil given to overweight pregnant rats prevented their offspring from developing a major diabetes risk factor, Auckland researchers have found.

0 comments

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.