Compassion can lead to better physical and emotional outcomes for recovery, writes Aleney de Winter.
“I will offer those who suffer all my attention, my science and my love.” – Hippocrates
Kindness remains a theme in the modern Hippocratic Oath, with today’s medics making a solemn vow that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the surgeon’s knife or the chemist’s drug. But somehow, despite a growing body of scientific evidence on the positive power of kindness on our physical health, it remains one of medicine’s most overlooked remedies.
The philosophy that the secret of the care of a patient is caring for the patient is now being backed by scientific studies spanning practices from psychology and neuroscience to economics. These controlled trials are demonstrating that delivering health care with a side of kindness can not only decrease pain, anxiety and blood pressure but promote increased immune function and faster physiological healing. It can even hasten recovery from the common cold. In essence, kindness in health care holds the power to heal.
What is kindness in care?
“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.” – John Holmes
Kindness in care begins with emotional resonance. It is acknowledging and attempting to understand a person’s suffering with empathy. It is communication and listening in a way that helps patients feel heard and valued. Studies show that when doctors demonstrate active listening, patients feel less stress. Not only that, but when doctors listen with empathy and put their patients’ emotional requirements first, they ease anxiety and promote trust. This is crucial for successful medical treatment as patients are more open to offering information that can help with diagnosis and treatment, leading to better physical and emotional outcomes for their patients, along with speedier recoveries.
A systematic analysis of randomised controlled trials on the influence of the patient-clinician relationship on healthcare outcomes backs the suggestion, with statistically significant evidence demonstrating that a good relationship between patient and practitioner can have a sizeable effect on healthcare outcomes.
Kindness in care goes beyond just listening
“Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.” – Brene Brown
Compassionate connections in care makes a patient feel valued and respected by their healthcare practitioner, lowering psychological stress, which can exacerbate health issues and foster health-damaging behaviour. A surplus of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine can also have a direct impact on recovery as they inhibit production of anti-inflammatory cytokines and slow wound healing.
Empathy humanises a patient and that can help melt the fear away, particularly in those facing big health hurdles. But sympathy is a pity-based response to a situation. It is a negative emotion and is rarely wanted or beneficial.
“Empathy is about demonstrating genuine, compassionate concern for others and performing acts that are kind, but not morally required,” says 43-year old Vasi D., currently undergoing gruelling treatment for Stage 3, Grade 3 Invasive Ductal Carcinoma.
During the initial shock of her cancer diagnosis, the Sydney corporate and mother of one didn’t care about bedside manner. The first surgeon she was referred to was cool, clinical and matter of fact, and would absolutely get the job done.
“I was okay with that. I didn’t need a friend. I just wanted the best doctor and the best result, and I wanted it fast.”
However, clinical research shows that lack of emotional support from healthcare practitioners can lead to an increase in health-damaging stress. Needless to say, a week or so later, when the reality of her prognosis had sunk in, Vasi started to question if something was missing.
“You don’t want to pollute your brain with too much negativity. You just want someone to say you’re cured. But that’s not the reality. The cool clinical approach left me feeling like a job. I didn’t feel human.”
She decided to seek a second opinion after a chance encounter with the kindly radiologist who had first diagnosed her resulted in a referral to a different doctor.
“I am so glad I made that call, because as soon as I met this new surgeon, I knew she was my girl. Her diagnosis was no different from the first doctor, but she was compassionate and warm and, more importantly, I liked her.”
The emotional resonance boosted Vasi and offered something she hadn’t, until that point, realised she needed.
“She didn’t pretend that this wasn’t going to be tough, but her supportive nature made me feel like I could fight this, and she would be with me every step. That was powerful.”
The care connection
“A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.” —Steve Maraboli
As Vasi began her treatment, the compassion showed by her team led her to the point where she both dreaded and looked forward to each of her exhaustive 16 rounds of chemotherapy. “I knew I’d feel so bad afterwards, but my entire medical team treated me like an old friend,” she says.
The global pandemic made things harder, because she couldn’t have family or friends by her side to support her during her treatments.
“So, these amazing people upped the ante. They made it their mission to get to know me. We shared personal stories. Some of them are cancer survivors themselves. They have children. They understood where I was in the world and humanised the whole experience. Yes, I was a patient, but I was also a person.”
Vasi understands that everybody’s experience of cancer is different, both physically and emotionally, but hers has been mostly positive, because of the amazing people caring for her.
“I was surrounded by people with more severe cancers than mine. People who were dying. That was so confronting. But having the right people made all the difference. I remember a trio of nurses and two other patients. The six of us were together every week for the first twelve treatments and it was like sitting in a coffee shop chatting with my best friends. We’d spend the day laughing our heads off. I don’t even remember the chemo being administered. Just the laughter and the love,” says Vasi.
These moments of normality grounded her, keeping her present and in the moment and not fearing the next hour or week or month, a gift she says made every step so much easier. “With these amazing people by my side, I knew I would get through it. All of it.”
Care comes from everywhere
“Compassion isn’t about solutions. It’s about giving all the love that you’ve got.” – Cheryl Strayed.
Not everyone is qualified to help but being surrounded by positive people outside of medical circles is also essential to the recovery process.
“When I first found the lump in my breast, I delayed getting it checked until a hairdresser, who had also had a recent breast cancer diagnosis pushed me to see someone immediately. She saved my life. Once my hair started to fall out from the chemo, it was the staff at the very same salon who showed me it was OK to open myself up to kindness.”
When Vasi turned up at the salon to get her long hair lopped, every member of the salon staff was in pink. Even the salon dog was wearing a pink bandana.
“It was such a massive show of genuine care. I walked out of what could have been one of the most confronting moments of my journey feeling like a million dollars.”
Her supportive husband and “brave and kind” son have also been an imperative part of her support network to date. But close family members are so deeply and emotionally invested in a diagnosis of a partner, parent, sibling or child, that they go through their own trauma as part of their loved one’s cancer prognosis. Sometimes that can mean denial. Sometimes it can mean anger, guilt and depression. And often, it leaves an adult patient feeling a need to put on a front to protect them.
Which is where friends come in says Vasi, who counts on her “Boobie Brigade” – a group of girlfriends from different parts and times of her life – who have been holding her hand, both figuratively and literally, through the trauma of her diagnosis, and the emotional, psychological, physical and practical challenges that she has had to face in the months since.
“With some people kindness has a price, but with others it’s just there, no questions asked.
Cancer or not, I think every woman needs a group made up of girls like these. The one who tells you to put on your big girl pants, slap on some lippy and get on with it. The one who lets you cry until you vomit. The spiritual, soothing one. The funny one. The umpire, who steps in to mediate when steroid rage kicks in. They have all been a lifeline.”
No matter how self-reliant we think we are, the validation of others holds power, and it is compassionate human connection that can provide the biggest lift. physiologically as well as psychologically.
“The respectful care I’ve been shown from all corners over the past six months has helped me to be able to put myself first for possibly the first time in my life. But I had to intentionally make a choice to open myself up to this kindness, and to put myself first.
“The reward has been an outpouring of genuine compassion and love, which has put me in such a positive state of mind. Without it, I don’t believe my prognosis would be as good as it now is,” adds Vasi, adding her own ringing endorsement to the healing powers of a culture of caring, commitment and compassion that Hippocrates extolled more than two millennia ago.
Disclaimer: this information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent disease. This article provides general information only, and does not constitute mental health or medical advice. If you have concerns regarding your mental health, seek appropriate medical care or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.