The Legality of Compassion in Healthcare Settings


There is no use denying the fact that modem age can be taken as the era of humanism where a human being is considered to be of the greatest value. However, things not always were the same. Throughout centuries, society has been changing its attitude towards a human being and its value, starting from the fatalism of the Middle Ages and ending with the more reasonable approach of the New era. However, in all times people bewailed their relatives or close people as it was an integral part of human nature. Yet, very often this feeling was rather outward as a society did not appreciate the existence of every individual. Nevertheless, two world wars taught people to respect and appreciate human life. Nowadays it is taken as a great value. Trying to guarantee and protect all rights of people all over the world, society creates various organizations whose main aim is to help people in this process. Moreover, the functioning of the healthcare sector is devoted to the attempts to save human life and reduce the suffering of a patient. With this in mind, it is possible to say that modern society is built around compassion which helps to protect people. However, there are some spheres of human activity where it can have a pernicious effect on the final result. The healthcare sector is one such sphere.

Healthcare sector and its tasks

To understand this very statement and determine what status compassion should be given, it is necessary to analyze the whole healthcare sector and the main peculiarities of its functioning. Moreover, the definition of the term itself should also be obtained. With this in mind, it is possible to assume that the given work is devoted to this analysis and cogitations about the issue of compassion in terms of the efficient functioning of the healthcare sector.

Speaking about the peculiarities of the healthcare sector, it is possible to admit the fact that its main aim nowadays is to protect the health of people in various ways and, in the case when the life could not be saved, to guarantee the best possible quality of life in terms of existing conditions. People, who work in this very sector, should have a certain set of skills which could help them and make their functioning more efficient. Professionalism and a high level of skills are obviously among them. However, very often various humanistic qualities are not less important. The main motif of people, who devote their lives to this sphere, is to help people and protect them.

That is why it is possible to say that compassion is also very important and should be peculiar to a person. Thus, everything depends on the conditions under which this quality could be manifested. The modern healthcare sector supposes very close interaction between a patient and his physician and tight bonds can establish between these people. These bonds can help a patient to feel himself/herself better and relax, as the importance of a positive attitude is already proved. Yet, very often it does not work for specialists, who work with these patients. According to the modern tasks of the healthcare sector, medical staff should be respectful and caring towards all patients, no matter what their race, age, or social status are. However, there are no points that state that specialists should create emotional relations with their patients and express various feelings, including compassion. That is why the issue of the legality of compassion in healthcare settings obtains especial importance nowadays. There are various points of view on this question and a great number of debates are organized to prove the necessity of this feeling or, on the contrary, its pernicious influence on the objectivity of a specialist.

The issue of compassion

Nevertheless, to understand the issue better and obtain a certain vision of the problem, it is also necessary to define the phenomenon of compassion and its influence on humanity. First of all, it should be said that the Oxford dictionary defines compassion as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others” (compassion, n.d) The term is not new as this feeling can be seen even in the wild world among animals, which feel the loss of their posterity or couples. Having descended from animals, people could not but have this feeling, especially towards individuals who are close to them. However, with the development of social manifestations of all-natural feelings became more complicated as they were influenced by various forms of behavior or etiquette. That is why incoherent society compassion can be related not only to the sphere of feelings and emotions, it is also the social phenomenon that regulates relations between people and helps to establish some kind of emotional bond. It is a widely accepted practice to show compassion even between people who are not known or do not have close relations with each other. With this in mind, it is possible to say that compassion is very often associated with politeness and sympathy.

Compassion and humanism

Besides, it should be said that substitution of terms and degradation of the line of demarcation between the terms like compassion, sympathy, and humanism happen because of the peculiarities of modern society and values which people appreciate. As it has already been stated, in the modern world human life is taken as a priceless phenomenon and, that is why, the society aims at creating the pattern according to which all phenomena, which respect life and promote the development of positive feelings, should be cultivated. That is why the wide term humanity is very often used to describe all emotions and feelings which a person can have towards another human being.

Compassion and society

However, it is not a good practice as it could lead to the appearance of various misunderstandings. The statement that specialists, who work in the healthcare sector, should be humane is accepted by society and there are no discussions connected with it. Thus, at the same time, the issue of compassion and all processes connected with it is still considered to be rather disruptive and ambivalent. That is why, having outlined the necessity of clear differentiation between humanity, which should be the main quality of a healthcare specialist, and compassion, it is possible to analyze the importance of the second phenomenon and the impact it has on the healthcare sector.


Additionally, under modern conditions and by the latest tendencies, some scientists even introduce the term dehumanization (de Zulueta, 2013). It is used to describe the main process which now is peculiar to ethics and society and which main sense lies in the reification and scientism (de Zulueta, 2013). The healthcare sector is not the exception. It should be said that more and more people believe that humanism and compassion failed in their mission and the approach deprived of manifestations of these issues should be outlined. That is why the tendency towards dehumanization is sometimes taken as the good drift that could lead to the improvement of the healthcare sector. The thing is that scandals in the national healthcare sector were quite habitual and usually connected with the issue of compassion to a lesser or greater degree.

Physicians were blamed for the absence of this very feeling and non-adherence to the main principles of humanism. That is why there is a point of view that dehumanization could have a positive impact on the whole sphere. However, at the same time, some specialists underline the fact that “the current emphasis on speed, the efficient completion of tasks and quantitative measuring undermine the ethics, tradition, and practice of care” (de Zulueta, 2013, p. 87). With this in mind, it is possible to admit the ambivalent character of the issue of dehumanization. It results from the change of the attitude towards some traditional values such as care and close relations with patients. Though, at the same time, resting on the evidence of scientists it helps to achieve efficient completion of tasks and speed, which is very important in terms of modern tasks of the healthcare sector. With this in mind, it is possible to state the necessity of looking for a balance between the total dehumanization of society and a practical and efficient approach to the work. Only under these conditions, the functioning of the modern healthcare sector could become efficient and there will be fewer complaints connected with the absence of compassion and inhumane approach of specialists.

Compassion in the healthcare sector

First of all, it should be said that according to the latest tendencies, peculiar to medical schools, young specialists, who are eager to work in the healthcare sector, are taught that compassion is the feeling which could make a specialist vulnerable and could have the negative impact on the level of his/her performance (Stanford & Connor, 2012). At the first glance, this assumption could be taken as contradictory to the main tasks and purposes of the healthcare sector. However, specialists, who have great experience in this sphere, and professorship, explain this statement by the fact that the feeling of compassion can make a specialist less objective and deprive him/her of resolution to perform some unpleasant or even pain, though the needed procedure. Additionally, according to existing standards and rules a physician or a surgeon is prohibited to treat or operate on a person, who is related to this specialist. This rule is created based on the same considerations as realizing the fact that the life of a close person depends on his/her professionalism and the level of skills, a specialist will not be able to perform his/her main duties on the needed level because of the feeling of compassion. Moreover, a specialist is not allowed to have strong feelings towards a certain patient as it can lead to great stress and the appearance of mental disorders in case of failure. With this in mind, it is possible to state the fact that from the professional point of view the feeling of compassion can make a specialist weaker and decrease the level of his/her performance.

Influence on patients

However, at the same time, a physician is not able to be completely distant and detached from his patients. Very often, people, who find themselves in the hospital, are very vulnerable and seek to support. That is why, they take their physician as a person who can provide them treatment, care, and compassion. According to the research of Fogarty, Curbow, Wingard, McDonnell, and Somerfield (1999), even some short-term manifestation of this feeling can result in a significant reduction of patients anxiety. Researchers analyzed the emotional state of patients, who suffered from breast cancer, and concluded that they felt great relief when their physician was calm and compassionate towards them (Fogarty et al., 1999). This fact can be taken as great evidence of the positive impact of compassion on patients emotional state, which, in its turn can also have a positive influence on the final results of treatment as much depends on the mood of a patient and his/her ability to struggle. With this in mind, it is possible to introduce another point of view on the issue of compassion in the health care sector. Resting on these facts, its positive influence becomes obvious and specialists, who work in this sphere, should be able to compassionate their patients to guarantee their relaxation and progress.

Compassion and professionalism

Thus, it is possible to say that the existence of these two opposite points of view on the issue of compassion in health care leads to the appearance of a great number of debates connected with it and with the professionalism of specialists who work in this sector. The main question is whether a physician, who tries not to compassionate his/her patients too much, can be called a professional and allowed to work in this sphere (Lown, Rosen, & Marttila, 2011). Both sides have strong arguments, however, the choice still depends on a specialist as the necessity of compassion is not prescribed on the legislative level (Harris, 2014). That is why, a physician, who works at the hospital, can choose what style of behavior to adhere to. The issue is so important that many works and even movies are devoted to it. TV series House, M.D. are extremely popular and the issue of compassion is central there as the main character is a physician who is deprived of this feeling totally, though it helps him to become the best specialist because of the great level of objectively and professionalism achieved by the refusal to compassionate his patients. It should be said, that these TV series are not deprived of common sense, as according to the research of van der Cingel (2009), objectivity, achieved by the refusal of compassion, can increase the level of professionalism of a specialist significantly. That is why, in terms of the main task of the health care sector, which is to protect and save the life of a patient, the importance of compassion and its significance are inferior to professionalism which could be achieved when a specialist is distant.

Compassion and professional burnout

Moreover, speaking about compassion and all feeling connected with the interaction between a patient and his/her physician, it is impossible not to mention the problem of professional burnout that is rather topical to the healthcare sector. According to Wood and Killion (2007) “professional burnout is generally described as prolonged stress that impairs one’s ability to perform his or her job in demanding situations” (p.39). They also state the fact that workers of the healthcare sector are at increased risk for this professional burnout as in their work they have to face and accept many negative and even scornful moments and emotions (Wood and Killion, 2007). A healthcare specialist, who suffers from professional burnout, is not able to perform his/her duties on a high level anymore and has to undergo a course of treatment (Portnoy, 2011).

Taking into account the fact that all workers are in the risk group, it is possible to say that the whole health care sector suffers from it very much. Besides, one of the most important reasons for professional burnout among health care professionals is excessive affection or compassion towards patients. Having become close with them, a physician takes hard all negative news connected with the progress of this patient and especially difficult becomes the recognition of debility in case of some incurable malady or the death of a patient. The worst thing is that a physician is not able to take a break and go through these feelings as many other patients await him/her and who can also hurt a specialist. That is why, in terms of professional burnout and the emotional state of a specialist and his mental health, it is necessary to minimize manifestations of the issue of compassion and suggest a reduction of the level of intimacy in relations between a physician and his/her patient. Remaining distant, a specialist will be able to work with a high level of objectivity which could lead to the improvement of the functioning of the whole healthcare sector.

Euthanasia and compassion

Finally, there is another disputable practice that could be taken as the manifestation of compassion. This refers to euthanasia, which can be defined as the painless killing of a patient who suffers from an incurable disease that is supported by strong pain. There are many various perspectives on this issue. Adherers of this idea state the fact that it is the manifestation of real compassion and humanism as it is unacceptable to let a person suffer from pain without any chance for recovery, while their opponents say that life is the greatest value and it is not for people to decide whether a person should die or not. The law also does not have any consistent approach to this issue as some states accept euthanasia while in the rest this practice is strongly prohibited. Very often, people who suffer from pains want to end their life and ask for this procedure, taking it as an act of compassion. Thus, being affected by pain, these patients might not have a rational mind, being influenced by the desire to stop the pain. Yet, at all accounts, this procedure is a great moral responsibility for a specialist and becomes a crushing burden that destroys his/her personality. That is why, euthanasia, as the manifestation of compassion, also has an ambivalent character.

Compassion and the law

Though, resting on the previous paragraph and taking into account the ambivalent character of the given issue, it is possible to underline the close interrelation between compassion and the law. The thing is that traditionally, there are laws that regulate the functioning of the healthcare sector, however, they mainly watch physicians not to make harm their patients or not to deceive them in some way. Thus, the sphere of feelings and emotions could not be controlled by the law and specialists could not be prescribed how to behave and what relations with a patient to establish. However, at the same time, there is the ethic code that describes certain patterns of behavior that should be peculiar to specialists. Besides, due to this fact very often the question of whether this code has real power or not and whether a specialist, who works in the sphere of health care could be judged resting on the main principles of this code appear. Additionally, this question also leads to the introduction of debates that involve ethics and the law. Traditionally, ethics has been taken as the phenomenon that should control the functioning of the healthcare sector. Nevertheless, in the modern age, the necessity of the creation of a certain code that should have the power of the law is also very often emphasized. With this in mind, it is possible to state the fact that the issue of compassion has very ambivalent relations with the law which leads to the appearance of a great number of debates.


With this in mind, having analyzed the main information connected with the issue of compassion and its manifestation in healthcare settings, it is possible to make a certain conclusion. One could say that living in the age of humanism, people should care about human life and try to protect it, guaranteeing well-being and compassion for all members of society and compassionating all their losses and suffering. That is why the main purpose of the modern health care sector is to provide treatment for people to preserve their health and reduce their suffering. Moreover, working with people, healthcare specialists cannot but demonstrate some humanistic feelings like sympathy, solicitude, and compassion. However, the legality of the last one in the healthcare sector could be doubted as having a positive influence on patients and their results, it still could lead to a significant decrease in the level of professionalism among the workers of this sector. That is why further investigations of the issue of compassion are needed to determine the optimal intensity of this feeling for the healthcare specialists.


compassion. n.d. In Web.

de Zulueta, P. (2013). Compassion in healthcare. Clinical Ethics, 8(4), 87-90. Web.

Fogarty, L., Curbow, B., Wingard, J., McDonnell, K., & Somerfield, M. (1999). Can 40 Seconds of Compassion Reduce Patient Anxiety? Journal of Clinical Oncology, 17(1), 371-379. Web.

Harris, D. (2014). Contemporary Issues in Healthcare Law and Ethics. Chicago, IL: Health Administration Press.

Lown, B., Rosen, J., & Marttila, J. (2011). An Agenda For Improving Compassionate Care: A Survey Shows About Half Of Patients Say Such Care Is Missing. Health Affairs, 30(9), 1772-1778. Web.

Portnoy, D. (2011). Burnout and Compassion Fatigue Watch for the Signs. Web.

Stanford, C., & Connor, V. (2012). Ethics For Health Professionals. Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

Van der Cingel, M. (2009).Compassion and professional care: exploring the domain. Nursing Philosophy, 10(2), 124-136. Web.

Wood, B., & Killion, J. (2007). Burnout among healthcare professionals. Radiology Management, 29(6), 36-38. Web.

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