Being a nurse isn’t just about physically caring for your patients — it’s also about emotionally supporting and advocating for them. In the American Nursing Association’s Code of Ethics, the first principle listed is, “The nurse practices with compassion and respect for the inherent dignity, worth, and unique attributes of every person.” This sentiment is echoed by patients and families, who consistently rank compassion among their highest healthcare needs.
In nursing, you’ll see “compassion” often used interchangeably with other concepts, like empathy, sympathy, and caring. But compassionate care is more than just relieving suffering by treating physical problems. You also need the ability to relate the experiences your patients are going through and allow them to retain their dignity, independence, and personhood throughout the process.
Here’s why compassion is a vital skill in the nursing field and how you can proactively demonstrate compassion to your patients as a nurse.
The Importance of Compassion in Nursing
Practicing compassionate care helps you to provide the best possible treatment and improves patient outcomes.
1. It Addresses Loneliness and Isolation
Medical treatment can be a lonely experience. Patients are out of their homes and in a new setting, typically away from the people they love and rely on outside of visiting hours. They may be in a room by themselves, or they may be unable to walk or talk. Sometimes, their only social interactions are with you, the nurse, and other health care professionals.
Practicing compassionate care during your interactions with patients can reduce their feelings of loneliness and isolation. This could be as simple as talking to them about their day or a hobby they’ve mentioned in the past. You get to provide human connection in a time when your patients are deeply missing it.
2. It Eases Anxiety
In addition to loneliness and isolation, patients are likely to experience anxiety, especially if they’ve never needed medical treatment before. Not only are they in a new place without their usual support system, but something is likely wrong with their health. If they’ve been admitted for in-patient treatment, it’s even scarier. They may not know what’s happening, how long they’ll be there, or what their future will look like.
By taking the extra effort to be compassionate, you can ease anxiety and make them feel a bit more comfortable in a vulnerable situation. And a relaxed patient is more likely to tolerate pain and discomfort well, have a positive attitude toward recovery, and comply with post-discharge instructions.
3. It Makes You a Better Advocate
As a nurse, part of your job is to advocate for your patients. To do this, you have to understand the patient holistically — as in all their needs, not just physical, but emotional as well. Being compassionate grants you better insight to their overall state, allowing you to not only provide the highest quality care, but to advocate for your patient in conversations with family members and other professionals.
4. It Improves Communication Between Patient and Nurse
By practicing compassion in your interactions, you’re also building trust between yourself and your patients. They’ll feel more comfortable communicating with you regarding their care, helping you to better understand their needs. In turn, you’ll be able to better address any concerns they have — including unspoken or implied issues — as well as maintain a positive relationship throughout care.
5. It Improves Overall Patient Well-Being
People want to be treated with kindness and respect, especially during vulnerable or difficult times. Exercising compassion will improve your patients’ overall well-being, which can not only improve their health outcomes, but will also make everyone’s experience a bit easier and more pleasant.
How to Practice Compassion in Nursing
While nurses try to show compassion to all patients, certain barriers in the health care system can make this more challenging in practice. You’ve probably experienced at least some of those barriers, like a lack of resources (time, support, and staff), paperwork and productivity requirements, and a negative workplace culture. One or all of these issues can affect a nurse’s ability to show compassion.
But despite these challenges, two practices have been found to support compassionate care. The first is building strong team connections, including celebrating victories and providing emotional support to coworkers. The second is finding ways to make compassionate care an easy and identifiable action you and others can take.
Here are some tangible ways you can practice compassion with your patients:
- Put yourself in your patients’ place. People often feel overwhelmed, anxious, and isolated when their health is in crisis. They may be embarrassed to admit they don’t understand something or if they’re having problems. They may not feel empowered to participate in their care or express concerns. Think of how you’d feel in your patients’ place, including challenges you might face and how you’d want to be treated. Then ask yourself what you can do to make them feel more comfortable — and if you’re not sure, ask them directly.
- Take time to build relationships. Even when time is limited, small gestures can go a long way. Use a positive tone of voice and body language, and greet your patient by name with a smile. State that you’re available to help and tell them how they can reach you (like pushing the call button). When in their room, ask how they’re doing, strike up a conversation, and genuinely listen to them.
- Demonstrate respect for the person. Before entering a patient’s room, knock on the door out of respect for their time and privacy. Take the time to explain any tests and procedures and answer any questions. If you don’t know the answer, don’t guess, but tell them you’ll find out, and then get back to them. Empower your patients to understand and be a part of their care. Be an active listener and follow up on concerns.
- When possible, go beyond the role of a nurse. Nurses often go beyond their job description to care for their patients. This can be applied to compassionate care, too. Providing appropriate touch, such as holding a patient’s hand, can give them a human connection in a time where it’s sorely needed. Doing a little something extra, like picking up coffee for an exhausted family member or sitting with a patient as they process difficult information, can make all the difference to your patients and their families.
Actions that you take to show compassionate care in your nursing don’t have to be big. They can be simple, small acts and behaviors you adopt into your routine and your everyday practice. It might seem small to you, but it can sometimes be one of the brightest memories that a patient or their family will have of that time.
Remember, compassion can make all the difference for someone’s well-being and recovery, so let compassionate care be your guide as you interact with your patients throughout your nursing career.