Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Do you need compassion to work in palliative medicine?


Compassion is deemed a "basic social emotion" (Nussbaum) and decreed a National Health Service core value—yet, what does ‘compassion’ really mean? Moreover, why is it so important, how can we deliver it best and how do we measure achievement here?

This essay will argue that compassion stands apart from other forms of interpersonal engagement as a deeply human recognition of another’s suffering which inherently motivates action to do something about this. There are two inextricable elements here: the role of suffering, and the resultant call to action it motivates.

The role of compassion pivots on suffering, and thus, our interpretation of suffering and what we consider its upstream cause: the problem to be fixed. Palliative medicine here stands apart, priding itself on the holistic care of what is important to the patient; thus, the symptoms problematic to the patient are the problem, rather than the underlying cause per se.

Compassion drives motivation to act; medicine equips us with the tools by which we can respond to this. Thus, compassion has been described as a ‘calling’ to healthcare for many who join the profession, and perhaps it is when these tools seem to fail that compassion fatigue takes hold. Though this is beyond the scope of this essay, compassion fatigue is considered a form of burnout directly related to the experiences of a caregiver.

Thus, compassion is central, and its outcomes stem first from our perspective of the issue at hand and second from our ability to drive change. The ability to recognise suffering in another and be motivated to help has relevance far beyond work in palliative medicine; perhaps this form of interpersonal engagement extends to humanity itself.

  • communication
  • ethics
  • quality of life
  • psychological care
  • supportive care

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.