What is compassionomics and why does it matter to higher education?

Forty seconds of compassion can save a life. This is one of the conclusions drawn by Stephen Trzeciak and Anthony Mazzarelli in their book, Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference. Leveraging scientific research and stories from the front lines, both argue that health care is in the midst of a compassion crisis, and that without compassion, the costs to patients and providers are enormous. 

Referencing a 2007 bus crash in Sweden that killed 6 people and injured 56 others, the authors note that 5 years later, survivors remembered two things: the physical pain at the moment of impact and a lack of compassion from the caregivers at the hospital. Multiple research studies show that this is a common problem. For example, Harvard revealed that nearly 50 percent of Americans believe the health care system and providers are not compassionate. Another study concluded resident trainees and attending physicians missed 70 percent of opportunities to provide compassionate care. The lack of compassion is made worse by physicians experiencing burnout, which is characterized by de-personalization. In fact, 56 percent of physicians believe they simply don’t have time for compassion.

The only way forward is to bring the focus back to the patients and practice compassion. Not only can compassion improve patient experience and clinical outcomes, it can provide benefits to physicians and other health care workers, including saved time and costs. 

So what is “compassionomics”?

Compassion is more than just expressing sympathy or empathy towards a person or that person’s particular situation. It’s action oriented, meaning that a compassionate person’s emotional response is focused on helping. That desire to take action and its results form the basis of “compassionomics”. Trzeciak notes in his TEDx talk that compassionomics is the “convergence of the art and science of medicine” — the art being the use of compassion to inform treatment decisions and the science being the delivery of that treatment and compassion’s proven impact on outcomes. 

These are the main benefits of practicing compassionate, patient-centered care:

  • Having more compassion for patients makes physicians more likely to be meticulous about their patients’ care and less likely to make a major medical error
  • Spending more time talking to patients helps save time by eliminating unnecessary diagnostic testing and referrals
  • Patients who receive compassionate care are more likely to take their medication, improving patient outcomes and symptom management
  • Compassion for others triggers reward pathways in the brain, meaning it improves the well-being of those who are compassionate

Many of the programs we work with acknowledge that professionalism is a significant issue among their students and residents. That doesn’t mean most of the people studying and working in health care are unprofessional. Rather, a minority can have significant consequences. For example, in Australia, four percent of dental practitioners represented nearly half of all complaints received. A study involving surgical residency programs revealed up to 30 percent of all residents required at least one remediation intervention, costing those programs up to $5,300 per episode. Finally, a study involving internal medicine programs found the success rate of remediation of residents for knowledge gaps was more than double the success rate for professionalism. 

How can higher education be part of the solution?

Since it is more difficult to remediate issues of professionalism, there needs to be more focus on teaching these important skills early on and throughout the entire program. Admissions processes should also become more holistic so that a greater number of well-rounded applicants are selected. We know most programs rely on personal statements, reference letters, and interviews to evaluate these competencies, but research has found each of these to be unreliable and incapable of predicting future success. Standardized professionalism assessments for admissions can help by providing reliable metrics to be used alongside cognitive metrics to make more informed decisions.