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Stanford University School of Medicine

Panel of Stanford Medicine leaders discusses compassion in health care

Compassion in health care begins with self compassion, a panel of Stanford Medicine leaders agreed at a discussion last week. The event was part of the nine-day Contemplation by Design program, a series of campus-wide events aiming to promote mindfulness, and well-being.

The speakers — Dean Lloyd Minor, MD; Charles Prober, MD, senior associate vice provost for health education; psychiatrist Mickey Trockel, MD; and Dale Beatty, DNP, chief nursing officer of Stanford Health Care -- were also united in their belief that an environment that fosters compassion, and that allows for individuals to practice self-compassion, is a key component.

Stanford Medicine is such a place, they said.

"I'm very pleased and honored to be part of an organization that has so many faculty members dedicated to increasing compassion," Minor said.

Lowering the prevalence of physician burnout is essential to increasing compassion throughout the health care system, Minor said. "You first have to have a sense of self-worth and a sense of well-being in yourself in order to exemplify and demonstrate those traits in the care you provide to others."

Through the WellMD program, Stanford Medicine is developing strategies to combat burnout that could eventually spread nationwide, Minor explained. "There's an opportunity for us at Stanford to lead."

Prober added that a culture of compassion must begin early in a physician's training. "Compassion in health care really means approaching ourselves with compassion, our patients with compassion, but also all those who surround us, our peers, colleagues and trainees with a desire to help them when we see suffering."

The panelists emphasized that empathy -- or the ability to relate to the emotions of others -- is an integral part of compassion, yet physicians also have to reserve emotional space and time to care for themselves.

"If each of us doesn't have a plan for self-renewal and collectively hold individuals in our community accountable for self-renewal, we relapse into an ethos that doesn't reflect compassion," Minor said.

At Stanford Medicine, compassion is cultivated in part by its leaders, who are responsible for "walking the walk," Prober said. From hosting town halls, to daily interactions with colleagues and trainees, leaders here are working to ensure that a culture of compassion is rewarded, he said.

Minor said there are several challenges to fostering compassion, including the "hassle factor" in medicine. For example, for many physicians, entering information in the electronic health record sucks up time they could use to focus on patients, or even to relax with their families. Minor said he and others at Stanford are working to encourage innovative solutions, such as developing less-time consuming ways to collect information.

Factors outside the health care system can also jar a culture of caring.

"I'm deeply concerned about the environment in our country today, the environment in which we live and work... the general attitude of intolerance," Minor told the audience. "We're in contact with these deep fracture lines in our society."

The best way to counter that, and to promote respect and compassion at Stanford Medicine, is to each take responsibility as individuals for daily interactions that are under our control, Prober said.

"The first step is really to acknowledge we have to be intentional about planning for our personal renewal and we have to look for that in others," Minor said.

Previously: "We are all works in progress:" A Q&A on self-compassion, Stanford neurosurgeon-writer encourages people to practice kindness and compassion and From suffering to compassion: Meditation teacher-author Sharon Salzberg shares her story  
Photo by Becky Bach

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