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Compassion: The Wonder Drug for the 21st Century?

In a world where people are in constant search of endorphins, I recently learned that there’s an easy, legal, and affordable way to make myself and others feel good: simply practice compassion.

And the data backs it up.

At a recent Massachusetts Health & Hospital Association conference, Stephen Trzeciak, MD, MPH, presented data from his research on compassion, which concludes that human connection matters in extraordinary ways. And not just for the person receiving compassion, but for those giving it.

Dr. Trzeciak, a physician scientist and chief of medicine at Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey, addressed a group of more than 300 healthcare professionals and shared results from his recently published book, Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference. His research was largely focused on doctor-patient interactions, but the beneficial results he found can be extrapolated to other types of healthcare providers and to the population at large.

Dr. Trzeciak pointed to a recent Harvard Journal of Internal Medicine study showing that more than half (56%) of all physicians feel that they don’t have time for compassion with patients. (1) This frustration often leads to professional burnout. Given this finding, Dr. Cooper set out to uncover how long it actually takes for patients to feel compassion from a doctor.  He wondered if that lack-of-time feeling among MDs was a fact or a perception. He found a Johns Hopkins study of cancer patients showing that patients’ anxiety was measurably lowered with just 40 seconds of the doctor’s time and attention that included a positive message of compassion: “We’re going to be here with you. We’re going to go through this together. I’ll be with you every step of the way.” (2)

Dr. Trzeciak realized that there is a lack of alignment between what caregivers think they need in terms of time and what patients actually require to have a positive effect on their wellbeing.  He also noted the difference between empathy, which is more passive and can be draining, and compassion, which is a belief that you are in it together and can actively help. Through his research and discussion of his findings, he hopes to spread the word and help caregivers better understand this relatively simple solution to burnout and care giving challenges.

Other interesting findings include:

·        Compassion has vast benefits for patients across a wide variety of conditions;

·        Missed opportunities for compassion can have devastating health effects;

·        If patients know you care about them deeply, they actually take their medicine;

·        Compassion can be an antidote for burnout among healthcare providers; and

·        Kindness brings longer, healthier lives for both patients and providers. (3)

Dr. Trzeciak also found that compassion also benefits the person providing compassion. In his own words from an interview with Wharton Business Radio:

“I’ll be honest, I went through it myself. As an ICU physician, I meet people on the worst day of their life, literally. After almost 20 years of doing that, I realized that I had every symptom of burnout. I was keenly aware of the data that compassion for patients can actually be protective, so I decided to do an experiment on myself. Historically, the thinking is escapism. The way to get out of burnout is to get away, detach, pull back, go on a nature hike and do yoga and all that. Those things are important, there’s no doubt about it. But I wasn’t buying it. I wasn’t buying it because I thought the antidote to burnout had to be at the point of care. I decided to lean in more rather than pull back, to connect more rather than detaching. That was when everything changed for me, and I felt those burnout symptoms begin to lift. I figured if that can happen for me, it can happen for others, too.” (4)

The benefits of kindness and compassion can be expanded to the population at large. For example, the need for compassionate leaders in the workplace has been demonstrated by much research. The Australian School of Business culled research from 5,600 people across 77 organizations and concluded the ability of a leader “to understand people's motivators, hopes and difficulties and to create the right support mechanism to allow people to be as good as they can be” had the greatest effect on organizational profitability and productivity. (5)

Employees are increasingly demanding compassion from their leaders. Gallup's Strengths Based Leadership survey of more than 10,000 individuals found that compassion is one of the four main qualities employees need most from their leaders.

According to Gallup’s co-lead author, Tom Rath, “A lot of this gets back to the core research that we've conducted at Gallup by interviewing more than thirteen million people in the workplace. We've seen that if people…don't have a supervisor or leader who really cares about them individually, there's almost no chance that they'll be engaged in their work.” (6)

And, again, the “compassion benefit” goes both ways – compassionate leaders produce 23% less of the stress hormone, cortisol (7) and have measurably better resilience. (8)

After listening to Dr. Trzeciak’s talk, I reflected on my own recent hospital experience. I was admitted to the hospital after taking a blood test that raised the suspicion of a pretty serious heart problem. As Dr. Trzeciak said, it definitely turned into one of the worst days of my life when the doctor came in and said it looked like I had heart damage at the tender age of 52. I held the fear inside while going through a battery of tests and mostly being alone in my room. What I noticed was that in the course of just over 24 hours, I could count at least 15 hospital staffers who had interacted with me kindly, cheerfully, and some with humor while taking blood, administering tests, or just coming in to check on me.

Thankfully all the tests were the result of a false positive and I received a clean bill of health. But being on the receiving end of lots of kindness and compassion, I can vouch for the immediate benefits I felt during that difficult 24 hours.

Compassionomics comes along at a point in time where our country puts a greater focus on differences than on connection. It’s also a time where caregivers, families, and most people feel strapped for time and pulled in too many directions. The simple idea that focused attention for less than a minute can make a person feel measurably better is something that we can all remember and practice. And, it gives us a boost of good feeling as well.


[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3445669/

2 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/d0e7/8dcbbe2859fbf7c489915230c802238ebfd0.pdf

3 Trzeciak, S. & Mazzarelli, A. (2019) Compassionomics, The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence That Caring Makes a Difference . Pensacola: Studer Group Publishing

4 https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/the-compassion-crisis-one-doctors-crusade-for-caring/

5 http://www.hpw.org.au/uploads/5/9/1/7/59177601/boedker_vidgen_meagher_cogin_mouritsen_and_runnalls_2011_high_performing_workplaces_index_october_6_2011.pdf

6 https://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/113542/what-followers-want-from-leaders.aspx

7 https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141016021525-26656909-why-compassion-matters/

8 https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/28/smarter-living/why-self-compassion-beats-self-confidence.html


Kirsten L. Singleton, MBA, CAE

Kirsten Singleton is the Executive Director, Center for Education & Professional Development at MHA and the Executive Director for H Speakers. You can reach Kirsten for more information about finding the top speakers via the information below.

Phone: (781) 262-6053 - Fax:    (781) 262-6153 - E-mail: ksingleton@mhalink.org

Kirsten Singleton