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Psychological perspective on compassion in modern healthcare settings

Abstract

Compassionate care is a foundation of the National Health Service (NHS). However, several high-profile inquiries into healthcare failures in the NHS suggest compassion is often absent in our hospitals. Ensuing policies mandate healthcare professionals to ‘show more compassion’ but, as the psychological evidence-base indicates, this instruction neglects the complexity of this social emotion. This paper applies the psychological research on compassion to modern healthcare settings with the aim of creating a better understanding of the pathways leading to uncompassionate care. A review of the empirical evidence suggests a range of psychological factors modulate compassion. In particular, the psychological literature indicates the human compassion system is adaptive, highly attuned to its environment. As such, a healthcare professional’s ability to experience and display compassionate behaviour will be, in part, determined by the environment in which they practise; that is, aspects of the organisational environment will either facilitate or inhibit compassion. This paper argues that the typical organisational set-up of a modern healthcare setting seriously undermines compassionate care. Organisational features frequently associated with uncompassionate care include the understaffing of hospital wards, excessive working shift patterns and the dogged focus on achieving service efficiencies—each has been identified as contributing to the alarming breakdown of compassionate care at the centre of several healthcare failings. Policies focusing on culture change in the NHS neglect the growing psychological evidence base on compassion, but by applying a psychological understanding of compassion to healthcare settings, we can begin to adequately understand and address the real causes of uncompassionate care.

  • psychology
  • quality of health care
  • behavioural research

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