How a Little Compassion Improves Outcomes

By Jon Miller Updated on August 11th, 2018

In an inspiring TED video Stephen Trzeciak, a critical care doctor at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, N.J. explains How 40 Seconds of Compassion Could Save a Life. He begins, “In healthcare we in the midst of a compassion crisis.” Today nearly half of Americans believe healthcare providers are not compassionate. One cause is electronic medical record-keeping requirements, causing physicians spend more time looking at computers than looking people in the eye. Another is that 56% of physicians believe they do not have time to be compassionate.

Does compassion really matter? What is the evidence? Dr. Trzeciak presents the science of how compassion can reduce pain, stress, and improve quality of healthcare outcomes, and reduce lower total healthcare charges. In one study, when patients answered, “Yes” to the question, “Does your physician know you as a person?” there was a 33% higher chance of adherence to taking the medication, and better outcomes as a result.

It seems like a simple thing to spend more time talking to patients. But physicians may be overburdened, even close to burnout. Even if they wanted to show compassion, there may be a fear that getting too close to a suffering patient will bring on an unsustainable burden to the physician. It may seem like a rational choice not to “spread oneself too thin” by showing more compassion than a physician has capacity for in any given day.

How much time does it take for a meaningful expression compassion? The real question is “how little?” and the answer is surprising. A study showed that when an oncologist spent a few moments at the beginning and end of a consultation saying a few words to the cancer patients showing compassion and understanding for their physical and emotional suffering, the patients reported less anxiety. These few words took a total of 40 seconds.

Based on the scientific findings, Dr. Trzeciak ran an experiment on himself, and found that by trying to show this minimum of compassion for others, it also reduced his own worry and stress, improved well-being and reduced the threat of burnout. He concluded his talk by saying, “You don’t have to be a healthcare worker to feel burned out,” and encouraged us to test the compassion hypothesis for ourselves. “Look and see those around you in the need of compassion and give them your 40 seconds of compassion. See how it transforms your experience.”

Not all of us are in the business of saving lives, but we can still test the compassion hypothesis. In the context of process improvement, innovation, developing people, lean transformation or any sort of organizational change, there will be people who experience fear, stress and worry. This is true both for people who are leading the change effort and for the people who may feel the changes are being “done to them”. How many minutes or seconds of compassion could make a meaningful difference in your line of work? It is for each of us to test and find out, but 40 seconds sounds like an attainable starting point.

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