Cultivating Compassion

Stephanie Pye, Priya Jaggi & Dr. Shane Sinclair

November 25, 2021

The Seedlings of Compassion: Recognizing learner differences in compassion competencies

In a previous post, we discussed what patients and healthcare providers (HCPs) told us when we asked them “Do you think we can train people to be compassionate?”. In short, while they agreed, they also emphasized that the outcomes of compassion training will vary from learner to learner based on the learners’ baseline virtues [1] [2]. Prior to receiving training of any sort, all of us (including HCPs) bring with us different levels of compassion – whether they are innately present, or even gained through past personal or professional experiences. In other words, while each individual learner may possess varying clinical competencies, compassion, like a flower, was felt to be something that could be nurtured over time and throughout professional experiences. Just as different soil types, exposure to the sun,and watering schedules between plants will produce varying results, the same is true of healthcare providers (HCPs). Their capacity for cultivating compassion will vary depending on life experiences, personal lives, self-care practices,clinical roles, and the acuity of their patients. These capacities between HCPs are, however, not meant to be comparative in nature since practitioners indifferent clinical roles would be exposed to varying patient conditions and hence patient needs. As such, it is not the absolute level of one’s compassion that is the focus of cultivation, but the relative growth and change that can happen over time.

Sustaining Compassion: Creating the conditions for compassion to flourish

HCPs and patients felt that an individual’s capacity for compassion could further flourish within the right teaching environment, clinical cultures, and by utilizing certain teaching methods. Both HCPs and patients felt that mentorship, experiential learning,and past personal experiences of both providing and receiving compassion provided fertile soil where a learner’s capacity for compassion could be nurtured and grown [1] [2].  

“It’s there, the compassion is there already, it just needs to bloom” (Patient Participant 49) [1]
“You can plant the seeds and through experience, it can grow” (Patient Participant 8) [1]

Patients and HCPs also underscored the important role that the larger healthcare system played in creating the conditions where HCPs compassion could flourish or perish. Support from management and having compassion embedded into the organizational values and culture were felt to be essential in creating environments for compassion to bloom. Without a supportive environment, HCPs in particular felt that their individual efforts were short-sighted and even futile [2].

While a nurturing environment was crucial to cultivating compassion, HCPs were also clear that training learners in self-care practices needed to be a part of the core curriculum, as self-care could serve to ward off burnout, personal issues, and stressors – the antagonists impeding the provision of compassion.

In short, both patients and HCPs in each of our studies were convinced that the underlying virtues, while varying from individual to individual, could be cultivated under the right conditions with the aid of certain teaching methods and practices. If you want to find out about how this would look in practice, please checkout our next article [See: No "One-size-Fits-All" in Compassion Training].

Photo by MarkusSpiske on Unsplash

Lab articles:

[1] Sinclair, S., Torres, MB., Raffin-Bouchal, S. et al. Compassion training in healthcare: what are patients’ perspectives on training healthcare providers?. BMC Med Educ 169 (2016).

[2] Sinclair, S., Hack, T.F., McClement, S. et al. Healthcare providers perspectives on compassion training: a grounded theory study. BMC MedEduc 20, 249 (2020).

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