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Rochester researchers look at physicians' compassion

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The University of Rochester Medical Center, in a Dec. 26 release, revealed the results of a study done at the facility which examined the sounds of compassion. The study is titled In search of compassion: a new taxonomy of compassionate physician behaviours. The researchers recorded conversations between local cancer specialists and their seriously ill patients and examined them for "observable markers of compassion." It is believed that this is the first study to attempt to identify compassionate behaviors by physicians.

Senior investigator, Ronald Epstein, M.D., is quoted by the release as stating “In health care, we believe in being compassionate but the reality is that many of us have a preference for technical and biomedical issues over establishing emotional ties." The study defined compassion as "a deeper and more active imagination of the patient’s condition." This is different than empathy.

The study looked at the three elements of compassion, and how the physicians used them in their interactions with their patients. The first element is the recognition that the patient is suffering physical and emotional distress. A second element was the physician expressing a sense of sharing or connection with the patient, emotional resonance. Physicians were compassionate, as well, as they moved to address patient suffering.

Physicians were also observed for their use of non-verbal gestures, such as a sigh or a touch. Their tone of voice, animation and their use of language, including humor, were also recorded. The analysis looked at the ways that the doctors provided reassurance and comfort to the patients they spoke with.

The results of the study showed that:

Compassion frequently unfolded over the course of a conversation rather than being a single discrete event. Additionally, non-verbal linguistic elements (e.g. silence) were frequently employed to communicate emotional resonance.

The study's authors suggest that refining their findings will provide a guide to future education and training in order to increase compassion in interactions between physicians and patients.

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