Rethinking compassion in medicine

Two recent events made me think about how traditional medical care and medical education address the issue of compassion.

The first was at the annual dinner for the Kenneth B. Schwartz Center when they gave out their annual Compassionate Caregiver Award, and reviewed the accomplishments of  previous awardees.  These individuals have all made remarkable differences in the lives of patients and families through their empathy and personal connections.

The second event was reading about the passing of Florence Wald, the former Dean of Nursing at Yale who organized the first hospice in the United States in 1974 because of her interest in compassionate care at the end of life.

While there has been much discussion about:

  • Shortages of primary care clinicians
  • How medical school graduates are increasingly going into specialties
  • Medical schools are thinking of replacing the requirement that applicants have taken organic chemistry with requirements for more biochemistry or genetics
  • A survey of physicians finding that over the next three years 49% plan to reduce the number of patients they see or stop practicing entirely, and 60% would not recommend medicine as a career

All these relate to the structure and content of physician education and training.  And I have two proposals:

First, while  medical school education has progressively shifted from teaching in hospitals to more out-patient and community care, I think doing more to show medical students and residents the rewards of community primary care would be a good step for increasing the number and prestige of primary care clinicians.

And second, while medical schools require students to go through rotations in pediatrics, Ob/Gyn, medicine, surgery and psychiatry, I don’t know of any that require students to go through a hospice rotation.  This may be because medicine and society try to discount death as a failure, but a hospice rotation would be a great opportunity for teaching students about empathy and compassion, and shifting the discussion of death within the context of medical education so that it is viewed more as part of the continuum of life.  In addition, having medical students in a rotation where they are not reporting to (and trying to impress) senior physicians, but rather working with nurses and social workers, also might provide them with a better perspective on teamwork in healthcare delivery – as well as a dose of humility.

The value of hospice (or palliative care) rotations for students does seem to be growing.  An article from 2006 reported that the University of Arizona was thinking about requiring a hospice rotation.  And the American Association of Medical College’s web-site has an article from 2004 about how Mt. Sinai has integrated palliative care into their curriculum.

Does anyone know of any medical schools that require hospice rotations for medical students or have integrated these types of programs into their core curriculum?  (BTW – A major focus for the Schwartz Center is grand rounds and other educational programs about compassionate care and patient-caregiver communications for both established clinicians and students.)

And lastly, it should also be recognized that expanding young physicians communications and empathy skills should help them work better with their patients, (and patients’ families), which could help reduce unnecessary and costly care.

Dr. Michael Miller started HealthPolCom Consulting in 2000 after 12 years in health policy positions in Washington, DC.  He works with an extensive network of policy and communications consultants. He blogs regularly at Health Policy & Communications, where this post first appeared.

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