Editorial: Compassion Fatigue

In a recent article in North & South Magazine[i], Donna Chisholm discusses the issue of compassion fatigue amongst doctors and some of the implications of this for patients. It is claimed that around 50 percent of doctors report compassion fatigue, and that there is an exodus of a quarter of young doctors from the country within three years of graduation, many of whom report stress and burnout.

Compassion fatigue has been described in terms of the draining away of what is seen as a finite reservoir of caring. However, recent research from Auckland University’s department of psychological medicine indicates that the ‘leaky reservoir’ model may not be adequate. Its survey of nearly 600 doctors indicates that, in fact, younger doctors report more obstacles to compassion. This work suggests that there are four key factors that need to be looked at and over which a doctor has little control: burnout/fatigue, difficult patients, external distractions and clinical complexity.

Chisholm highlights ‘difficult patients’ as one of the more interesting outcomes of the research. While ‘burnout’ tops the list of influences, “a patient’s attitude and demeanour are almost as important. That means if your doctor actually likes you as a person, you’ll probably get more compassionate care.” (p.61). One of the study authors suggests that “doctors are normal people. If they are confronted with a person who is unpleasant, demanding, non-compliant, ungrateful, malodorous … they won’t like them and they won’t care for them.” (p.61). The report’s author posits that there is an evolutionary aspect to this – it is inefficient to keep caring for people who don’t deserve it. He believes it is basic human functioning to ask ‘Do I like you?’ and that the answer to that question is the first decision that is made; in his opinion “no amount of professional training will ever get us past that fact. Ever.” (p.62).

A more hopeful analysis is offered by an Auckland City Hospital emergency department physician who suggests that while emergency departments are places where patient behaviour is likely to be at its worst, this is no reason for doctors to leave their compassion at the door. He has become considered by his colleagues the person best able to deal with the difficult cases - the angry drunks, the drugged and the homeless regulars who just turn up for a feed – and says: “I’ve learnt to like the people you wouldn’t normally like.” (p.62). Changing the way he thinks about patients has been the key to changing the way he acts, and while fatigue and burnout are factors in compassion failure, he believes that ‘healthy thinking’ can reduce it.

This approach is supported by other research undertaken with doctors that found that those who didn’t feel stressed had one main trait in common, that of being connected to their purpose, or a ‘higher calling’: “The doctors who are absolutely thriving all sound like they’re on a mission.” (p.62). One 60-year-old GP finds he now feels more compassion for his patients than he did 25 years ago. While he has over time become better at the ‘mechanical’ aspects, diagnosis and treatment, he also tries to listen to his patients, to understand what’s happening through ‘their eyes’. A fourth year student suggested that a lot of young doctors do not really listen to patients, “they’re filling out a check box in their head of things they feel they need to ask. I think that detracts from the fact that there’s a patient who’s an individual in front of you. Maybe they have information that’s not on your checklist.” (p.63).

A former primary-care nurse who trains health workers in how to better communicate with patients believes the ‘difficult patient’ problem is exaggerated and that ‘difficult patients’ are created by the way they are spoken to. At the same time, she does not believe every nurse and doctor can be taught to be compassionate and empathetic, and that around a third who attend her workshops “will never get it.”

The factors involved in compassion fatigue include a mix of environmental factors such as workload, the complexity of some illnesses, the behaviour of patients, as well as the evolutionary and personal factors that cause doctors to respond in certain ways to their patients. None of these is easily changed. However, finding ways of preventing compassion fatigue is important, for the doctors themselves but also because empathy and compassion are associated with better patient out-comes, and failure of compassion with poor decisions.

Of course, compassion fatigue is not restricted to the health professions; it also affects teachers, politicians, social workers, chaplains/pastors, prison workers, youth workers, counsellors and parents. With that in mind we have asked seven different practitioners from a variety of caring professions to offer their reactions to, and insights on, the North & South article.

We believe there is something of substantial personal value for every reader in the richness of the authors’ reflections offered in this issue. 

Sue Buckley is a researcher for The Nathaniel Centre and Dr John Kleinsman is the director of The Nathaniel Centre.

[i] ‘Cold Comfort’ by Donna Chisholm. North & South, Issue 59, September 2015. Pp. 59-64.