Compassion: A Powerful Tool for Improving Patient Outcomes

The release of Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference, authored by physician-scientists Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli, has ignited a conversation on the relationship between physician compassion and patient outcomes.

Stanford Medicine’s Emma Seppala discussed the topic with Trzeciak and Mazzarelli in a recent Q&A in the Washington Post. In the interview, the authors share findings on the link between bedside manner and healing. Among the many positive outcomes achieved by demonstrations of physician kindness, they name medication adherence, better achievement of adequate sedation before surgery and a decrease in need for opiate medication post-surgery.

And the proof is in the numbers. PubMed research cited by the Compassionomics authors reinforces their philosophy. When a healthcare provider shows compassion, studies show the following benefits:

·      The likelihood that a diabetic patient has optimal blood-sugar control is 80 percent higher and odds are 41 percent lower the patient will experience serious complications related to the disease.

·      Patients are less likely to utilize excessive health care services and, on average, have lower medical bills by about 50 percent.

·      Patients recover more quickly from the symptom that brought them to the doctor and have fewer visits, tests and referrals. Furthermore, “the proportion of these patients who are referred to specialists is 59 percent lower and diagnostic testing is 84 percent lower.”

Research involving MRI scans further confirms that when a patient experiences “compassion — the action component of trying to alleviate another’s suffering,” a “reward” pathway in the brain is activated. The connection is quite apparent, but as Trzeciak and Mazzarelli emphasize, it’s underestimated throughout the medical community.

So how can physicians actively demonstrate compassion? Mazzarelli names four behaviors that can be practiced at the patient bedside: sitting (versus standing) while speaking; face to face communication with eye contact; taking an active interest in emotional and psychological well-being, and not interrupting. We agree that these exercises, in combination with physical exam skills, are practices vital to improving patient outcomes.

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