SOURCE: University of Calgary

University of Calgary

February 01, 2016 10:47 ET

Discovering the truth about compassion

University of Calgary researcher explores the patient perspective

CALGARY, AB--(Marketwired - February 01, 2016) -  Compassion is a term we all use, but we don't really understand, according to University of Calgary Faculty of Nursing assistant professor and researcher Shane Sinclair. His two recently published foundational studies shine light on the alarming gap between this increasingly recognized pillar of quality care and patients' actual experiences.

Sinclair and his team looked at literature on compassion over the last 25 years, noting that 73% of all articles have been published in the last four years; compassion was frequently conflated with sympathy and empathy; and that less than one-third of studies included patients, with no studies asking for patients' understandings of compassion.

"After we conducted this first comprehensive review of compassion in the health care literature, we discovered that while compassion is a term that is liberally employed, we actually know very little about what it is, how it is experienced and its impact according to patients themselves," says Sinclair, who holds a research professorship in cancer care. 

Published in January's BioMed Central Palliative Care, an open access peer reviewed journal, research also uncovered that health care education can be detrimental to the individual's baseline compassion. "While health care providers want to provide compassionate care and feel confident they are, they often miss opportunities to do so, with their compassion eroding over the course of their medical education," Sinclair adds.

In the United Kingdom in particular, a number of pivotal health inquiries in the last three years have identified a lack of compassion as a significant contributor to adverse outcomes, including death.

Sinclair then conducted a follow-up qualitative study with 53 cancer patients at end-of-life, funded by CIHR, which generated the first evidenced-based model and definition of compassion from patients themselves. They distinguished between compassion and similar concepts of sympathy and empathy, with compassion being the most preferred. "Patients at the end-of-life bring an important perspective to our look at compassion for at least two reasons," explains Sinclair. 'If ever there was a time when compassion matters most, it is at the end of life. And, by virtue of their life-long experience, these people have the most health care interactions and can speak to the importance of compassion across the lifespan."

In the future, Sinclair plans to develop compassion training that is patient-informed and to seek opportunities for dialogue between academics studying compassion and individuals who are practicing compassion in society. The first of these is a May symposium, hosted by the Faculty of Nursing, featuring Margaret Atwood as a keynote speaker. "Compassion Under Contemporary Conditions" includes breakout panels focused on compassion at the bedside, compassion in the classroom and compassion in the community. "The end result of the panel will be food for thought," says Sinclair. "We are hoping participants will be compelled to take action: to take what they learn and make small or large changes in their lives and potentially, in their community."

Sinclair's second study "Compassion in Health Care: An Empirical Model" will be published in the February edition of the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management

*Note: Shane Sinclair will be available for media interviews on Monday, February 1 from 1:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. MST. Please use media contact below to schedule an interview.

About the University of Calgary
The University of Calgary is making tremendous progress on its journey to become one of Canada's top five research universities, where research and innovative teaching go hand in hand, and where we fully engage the communities we both serve and lead. This strategy is called Eyes High, inspired by the university's Gaelic motto, which translates as 'I will lift up my eyes.'

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Contact Information

  • Media Contact 

    Karen Cook
    Senior Manager, Communications, Faculty of Nursing
    University of Calgary
    W: 403.220. 4361
    C: 403. 869.1970