Compassion training for doctors to target burnouts

One of the emotionally most demanding professions is being a healthcare professional; long working hours, constant worry about patients, paperwork, constant studying, and so on. Compassion fatigue has been described as the convergence of the secondary traumatic stress and the burnout caused by extended exposure to traumatic situations.

Though it is not unique to health care professionals, compassion fatigue is more common among this profession than any other.

Health care professionals, who care for humans or animals that are in distress or are traumatised and suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), can develop their own secondary traumatic stress (STS) as an indirect response to patients’ sufferings. This response is called ‘compassion fatigue’ or as mentioned above STS. As Dr. Charles Figley defines:

“Compassionate Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

In addition compassion fatigue as The Washington Post writes:

can result in a loss of empathy for patients, emotional numbing and a sense of no control.”

Thus it is more important now than ever to teach and train health care professionals to recognise signs of the condition.

In order to combat burnout and compassion fatigue several medical schools have started programs to better equip physicians for stressful environment that they will be working in. They learn empathy and resilience that will help them to deal with the challenges they will be facing at their work. The Emory University Hospital’s Cognitively Based Compassion Training (CBCT) is one of the first of this kind. CBCT draws from the traditions of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhism mind training with a particular focus on compassion. Trainings practitioners to cultivate compassion through contemplative practices. Geshe Lobsang Tenzin Negi, Ph.D and a senior lecturer at the Emory University developed CBCT; that has initiated several research studies into the benefits of compassion training and meditation. The training fosters compassion through a process that begins with the stabilisation of attention and by building awareness of one’s own mental activity. Through analytical mental exercises practitioners learn to strengthen compassionate concern for others while avoiding the symptoms of compassion fatigue or burnout. As it is written on the training homepage:

“Through progressive exercises (beginning with the development of attentional stability and progressing through various analytical meditations), one gains insight into how one’s attitudes and behaviours support or hinder compassionate response. The practice of CBCT intensifies the desire to help others, allowing compassion to become more natural and spontaneous in one’s everyday life. It also helps increase personal resiliency by grounding one in realistic expectations of self and others.”

A study described in The Washington Post shows an increase in compassion and empathy and decrease in loneliness and depression in those students who took the training:

“A study on second-year medical students at Emory found that those randomized to CBCT reported increased compassion along with decreased loneliness and depression as compared with a control group. The greatest impact of CBCT occurred in students who came into the course with high levels of depression, who maintained their compassion throughout the semester. Those with similar levels of depression in the control group experienced a loss in compassion in the same time frame.”

Fortunately, The Emory University is not the only university that offers trainings in compassion. A program at Stanford University School of Medicine offers a Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT); that similarly to the Emory University combines Tibetan Buddhism traditions with modern psychology. Researchers, medical schools and hospitals are more and more exploring the benefits of compassion and empathy training in hopes to fight compassion fatigue or burnout, which would not only benefit health care professionals but also their patients.

Be compassionate and kind to yourself and it will expand towards those around you. In the words of the 14th Dalai Lama:

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”