conley6.gif (2529 bytes)


Compassionate Care
How health care education is integrating compassion into curriculum — and why it just may be the most important piece of all


May 2017

When treating a patient of any age, empathy and compassion are key components of all health care interactions. Margaret Rauschenberger, associate professor, interim dean and undergraduate program director at Alverno College’s School of Nursing, says surveys of patients show that much of their satisfaction with health care hinges on the care and compassion exhibited. “It is critical that nurses are knowledgeable and skilled in their profession, but it must be paired with true caring to be most effective,” she adds.

“Compassion is core to the overall well-being of our patients,” says Jill Berg, president of the Columbia College of Nursing. “I liken it to caring for plants,” she continues. “You can water and feed them, but without sunlight, they wither and die. I think compassion is the ‘sunlight’ for our patients.”

At Marquette University’s College of Nursing, a commitment to empathy is introduced into the curriculum from day one. Freshman requirements include a fall semester course centered around empathy. “We explore the social determinants of health, and how the students are called to recognize and protect the dignity and worth of every person for whom they care,” says assistant professor Jennifer Ohlendorf.

In the spring semester, first-year students focus on therapeutic communication. “Students learn how to talk with patients in a compassionate way that will make them feel cared for and that will also help them heal or improve their health,” explains Ohlendorf. “We do this through role-playing in class, and then the students practice in our simulation labs, interacting with actors who challenge their ability to respond to patients.”

Students are also taught how to use assertive communication in interdisciplinary teams so that they can be the voice for their patients when care decisions are being made. “This is often where the real caring happens, when a nurse who knows a patient’s wishes knows how to make the patient’s voice heard,” says Ohlendorf.

She refers to the work of nursing theorist Jean Watson, who wrote that caring for the mind-body-spirit is the only true goal of nursing. “In nursing, caring is an interaction where both the patient and the nurse are changed by the interactions between them. In fact, we have a whole body of research evidence that demonstrates that caring behaviors lead to increased well-being, enhanced coping, enhanced resilience, and better health management behaviors like healthy diet and exercise,” Ohlendorf says. “In her work, Dr. Watson emphasizes the importance of nurses caring for their own mind-body-spirit so they will always be truly caring in their work with patients.”

At Wisconsin Lutheran College, compassionate care is woven throughout all nursing courses. Students are required to take two psychology classes as prerequisites to nursing courses as well as a mental health nursing course. Columbia College of Nursing requires students to take a series of four professional development courses that address the need to be empathetic and compassionate and to approach the patients they encounter with grace and dignity. And at Alverno College, students take psychology courses specifically designed to teach nursing students how to recognize, assess and intervene for signs of anxiety, depression and other possible consequences that may accompany illness. “Communicating empathetic understanding is key,” says Rauschenberger.

Not all bedside manner is alike, though. Most schools do their best to ingrain compassion into their students, but the question remains: Is compassionate care a skill that can be learned, or do students need to bring empathy with them from the start?

Berg thinks that 99 percent of students drawn to nursing are naturally caring people. “Every once in a while we encounter a student who is not naturally compassionate,” she says. “It is difficult to teach that quality. I think you have to have some innate caring qualities that we can further hone and develop.”

“Faculty can role model communication and empathic skills, but I believe having compassion for another human being — and respect for the situation they are faced with — is not something that can be taught,” says Dr. Linda Krueger, dean of nursing at Bryant & Stratton College. “Generally speaking, people who enter nursing do so because they have a desire to help people, and that sentiment is a good start to being compassionate.”

At Wisconsin Lutheran College, assistant professor and School of Nursing chair Sheryl Scott says that when meeting with prospective students the staff stresses that nursing is much more than carrying out tasks or skills. “Compassion and caring are common characteristics that we look for in the applicants,” Scott says. “It would be difficult to enter the nursing world without a spirit of service to others. One of the most challenging situations is with students who are very introverted. It takes lots of practice and some experience for those students to feel comfortable to speak up and advocate for the patient. It does not mean these students are not compassionate; they just need extra coaching and practice to determine how to best demonstrate that compassion in patient situations.”

“Compassion and caring are the cornerstones of nursing practice and make the difference between good nursing care and great nursing,” notes Krueger. “One of my favorite quotes from an anonymous author is: ‘People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ While nursing practice has its own scientific basis, compassion remains a vital part of what we offer patients in their time of need.”


This story ran in the May 2017 issue of: