Sometimes I see a headline that simply makes my jaw drop.

That was the case when I was scrolling through NPR a few days ago and saw this: Does Taking Time for Compassion Make Doctors Better at their Jobs?

What jumped out at me wasn’t that showing compassion was helpful to the patient, or even to the doctor. It was that two trained physicians were SURPRISED that this was the case.

“Can treating patients with medicine and compassion make a measurable difference on the wellbeing of both patients and doctors? … After considering more than 1,000 scientific abstracts and 250 research papers, Trzeciak and Mazzarelli were surprised to find that the answer was, resoundingly, yes.”
– Does Taking Time with for Compassion Make Doctors Better at their Jobs?

Is this really where we are? Is this what things have come to – doctors needing to do a study to know that compassion is important?

The article goes on to state that one of the physicians “applied the techniques he’d been studying, including spending at least 40 seconds expressing compassion to patients.” He reported that those “40 seconds of compassion” started pulling him out of his burnout.

“40 seconds of compassion” sounds do-able to a physician who is completely burned out. But that doesn’t make it a worthwhile goal.

In fact, if 40 seconds of compassion is the best our healthcare system can come up with, then it is time to admit defeat and start over.

What does it mean to value treatment over caring?

The healthcare system as we know it is a pretty new thing. Originally, midwives and healers took care of the sick – and care was what was mainly provided. Then, as scientific advances occurred, treatment became the focus. Those who provided the care – nurses, mothers – were seen as less valuable than the doctors and researchers who provided “cures.”

So, even though we know from palliative care and hospice studies that providing good, compassionate care can extend life beyond what we could expect from treatment alone, we still devalue the importance of caring.

Just take a minute and think how much we pay the people we call “caregivers” in our society. $10/hour? If they are even paid at all?

And look at the pay differential between nurses and doctors. Nurses typically provide more care, which is part of that pay gap. (Gender is a huge confounding factor here, of course – but considering which gender is historically associated with caregiving, it only underscores my point.)

Treatment and “cures” are surely necessary – but not more than caring. Compassion is not a “nice to have”; it is an essential part of being human.

Ask yourself this – would you want to leave your child at a day care that promised 40 seconds of compassion a day? Would you want to put your mom in a nursing home if you knew she was guaranteed a daily allotment of 40 seconds of compassion? What about your best friend with cancer – would 40 seconds of compassion be enough to get her through chemo?

Sure, 40 seconds of compassion is better than nothing.

But only if “nothing” is the standard of care.