How Patient Education Can Increase Compassion in Healthcare

Healthwise Communications Team

At the recent Patient Experience Symposium, compassion in healthcare was a hot topic. The keynote speaker, Dr. Stephen Trzeciak, shared not only how compassion improves the patient experience, but also how it can help clinicians avoid burnout. It got us thinking about how patient education can help extend compassion to patients too.

A healthcare provider compassionately puts a hand on the shoulder of a patient


The compassion problem in healthcare

Compassionate healthcare means care that includes both empathy and action. In other words, patients receiving compassionate care feel they’re heard and understood—that’s the empathy. But they also see that clinicians take action to help them. Based on that definition, surveys show that nearly half of Americans believe our healthcare system isn’t compassionate. Are these patients’ feelings founded? As it turns out, yes. One study showed that physicians miss 60% to 90% of opportunities to respond to patients with compassion.

During his talk, Dr. Trzeciak spoke about how patients mainly remember two specific things five years after they experience a traumatic medical event: the pain they felt, and the compassion they received. Dr. Trzeciak recounted a meeting he had with one patient’s sister. He had to tell the woman that her brother likely wouldn’t make it through the night. The woman asked Dr. Trzeciak if he remembered her. She then told him that seven years before, when her mother was at the same hospital near the end of her life, Dr. Trzeciak had given her the same talk. As her mother passed, she said the nurses were like angels for the compassion they showed. Most remarkable, even seven years later, whenever this woman remembered her mother’s death, the memory of the nurses still made her feel better.

Compassion makes patients feel better, but compassion during a doctor’s visit is about more than warm fuzzy feelings—compassionate care is also linked with improved outcomes and patient adherence. More compassion is a potent solution to many of the challenges in healthcare.

How can we make healthcare more compassionate?

Even if we know healthcare needs more compassion, what can we do to make it happen? Despite the conventional wisdom that caring too much will burn out clinicians, research shows a negative correlation between compassion and burnout. In other words, the more compassion a clinician shows, the lower their rate of burnout.

As Dr. Trzeciak said in his Patient Experience Symposium presentation, “If you care deeply about people and have relationships that flow from that, then you get the fulfilling part of what it means to take care of patients…If you don’t have that, all you’re left with is a super stressful job.”

And showing more compassion doesn’t have to be complicated. One study found that using an “enhanced compassion” intervention during patient encounters effectively reduced patient anxiety. The intervention was simple: at the beginning and end of the visit, the clinician verbally acknowledged that patients were going through a tough experience and ensured them that the clinician was there for them. This intervention only took clinicians 40 seconds.

But compassion goes beyond clinicians. If compassion means patients feel heard and understood, patient education can also make a difference.

A healthcare provider shows a patient educational content on a laptop


How can patient education increase compassion?

Although health education is not a person with a reassuring voice, education can be created in a way that makes patients feel understood and shows empathy for the patient.

Here are just a few ways to increase compassion in health education:

  • Rather than pages of text, patient education can show compassion for everyone—(including those with low literacy—by using pictures and plain language to share information clearly and quickly.
  • Patient education can also show compassion by depicting diversity, so patients can see themselves in the education they receive.
  • Patient education can also take an empathetic and optimistic tone. Health issues don’t indicate personal failure, and rather than evoking shame, education can make patients feel empowered to make a change.

What Healthwise is doing to increase compassion in patient education

Since compassion is so important, we’re working to ensure Healthwise patient education does its part. One Healthwise client, Atrium Health, shared the impact on their mission after seeing some of our recent education updates.

Here’s what they said:

“At Atrium Health, we were excited to learn about Healthwise’s Visual Patient Instructions and the updates to their heart failure and postpartum videos, which focus on support and hope for managing your condition,” said Hope Brooks, Senior Patient Experience Consultant at Atrium Health. “These content changes align with our health literacy goals and mission, which is to improve health, elevate hope, and advance healing—for ALL. We have learned that patients and caregivers need more than just medical facts. They need to feel empowered to manage their conditions.”

“Our patients and family members have different levels of literacy and health literacy. Having patient instructions based mainly on pictures will help us reach more people. Also, health literacy can change based on your situation. Even healthcare professionals can struggle to understand when they don’t feel well, have anxiety, or get diagnosed with a scary disease. Simple patient instructions can benefit everyone.”

Healthwise continues to create and refine health education that makes all patients feel seen and heard—and to increase the compassion patients feel during their healthcare experiences. Contact us if you’d like more information about Healthwise health education.