Let’s talk about compassion

Let’s talk about compassion

Compassion is a universal idea – but it’s been in the news a bit lately. The Dalai Lama is helping to open the conversation about its role in medicine. A donor recently gave $100 million to create an institute to study empathy and compassion to the University of California, San Diego.

While the fields of public health and medicine (among others) often invoke compassion as a grounding principle, its application to our training and practice as professionals is still developing. We recently had the chance to reflect on compassion and its role in our work, and we realize it a conversation that we want to continue. And we’d love for you to be a part of it. Share your thoughts with us on social media, or send us an email.

In mid-June, we attended the IZUMI Partners Meeting in Boston. We are so fortunate to work with IZUMI and they have been a strong, steady partner as we have developed our approach to improve healthcare quality, governance, and community participation at community health centers.

IZUMI Foundation supports global health around the world and is part of a group of foundations originating in the Shinnyo-en order. Shinnyo-en is a Buddhist denomination originally established in Japan that is grounded in values such as kindness, compassion, and caring for others. In fact, one translation for the Japanese word izumi is “heart of compassion” and in the Shinnyo-en tradition, that is represented by a deep commitment to social awareness and justice.

IZUMI Foundation is driven by the principles of hope, health and compassion and we are delighted that the one thing that stayed with us the most from their meeting was not something we learned about global health or nonprofit leadership, but something far more universal: the role of compassion.

The keynote speaker at IZUMI’s meeting was Dr. David Addiss, an advocate for compassion in global health, and he spoke about its necessity in our sector. Compassion is a familiar value for most of us, but Dr. Addiss differentiated compassion from other values and grounded it clearly in our field. Compassion is not rooted in sympathy or pity – those connote differences in power, even superiority. Instead, compassion is rooted in solidarity and an acceptance of our interconnectedness.

Though some may view it as an unscientific discourse, he noted that compassion is a skill that can be practiced and there is a growing field of neuroscience devoted to understanding it. Compassion can be taught, and learned. Dr. Addiss asked us to consider and interrogate compassion – as the desire to alleviate suffering – as the inspiration and motivation for many of us and as the ground in which our field is rooted.

Though we are now back in the busy day-to-day of our roles, the idea of compassion has remained with us. It has encouraged us to reflect on the role it plays in our organization – and in our partnerships with communities in the US, and in Mali. As a small community organization, we often think of Mali Health as generating so much of our identity from the communities we serve in Mali – the proximity of our team within them and our service to them – and the community in the US who chooses to support that work. But if we take a step back and ask ourselves why that identity has meaning for us – the answer looks much like compassion.

At its best, compassion is about solidarity, about making connections across difference out of a recognition that we are linked. While compassion might stem from conditions of inequality, those we serve are not the objects or recipients of our charity. They are equal partners in eliminating suffering and improving the wellbeing of all.

But sometimes, that distinction isn’t always clear in our sector. There can be a downside to compassion, especially when it comes to examining our motivations and choices as individuals. Helpers of all kinds can burn out and people make poor choices in the name of serving others. At its worst, those operating in the name of compassion insist on maintaining power and agency over others – blind to their own biases and the oppression they perpetuate. And we still watch with concern as the power that exists in our sector not only can allow poor leadership or poor development work, but can incentivize it. Compassion alone is not enough to solve these challenges, nor is it the only value that should direct us. But we wonder if it might not be the kind of guiding, and grounding, principle from which global health as a field, and we as practitioners within it, could benefit.

In Mali, we see many applications for compassion in our daily work. The idea of “compassionate care” in a clinical or medical setting is not a new idea, but compassion is not a term we often use in public health. Our work and the way we train our team is grounded in principles of respect and care, but compassion still seems distinct.

Yet we see it in our community health workers going out each day to tend to their neighbors – doing so out of a sense of improving their communities and protecting the most vulnerable within them. We see it in our office staff, who have a strong sense of service to others and have dedicated themselves to our mission and values.

But perhaps where the idea of compassion resonates most for us is in our work to improve the quality of primary healthcare for the most vulnerable. Within quality improvement, there is a well-defined emphasis on the delivery of respectful maternal care that ensures all mothers are treated with equity and dignity. Interestingly, compassion does not often accompany these principles in the literature. But with its insistence on recognizing the human connection between a provider and a patient, compassion seems inherent in the current quality, equity and dignity (QED) framework in maternal and child health.

But there’s more we’d like to do.

Ethiopia’s Health Systems Transformation Plan discusses the creation of a compassionate, respectful, caring (CRC) health workforce, embedding compassion not only in quality, but also a building block of health systems strengthening (HSS). HSS can be one of the “nameless, faceless” areas of global health that the call for compassion is seeking to humanize – and we’re watching closely.

We are imagining how we might facilitate conversations with our team and our partners about the role of compassion not only for their motivations as individuals, but also within their daily work. We are thinking about what connections we might make between our emphasis on the patient experience in our quality improvement work, and how compassion might further improve our partners’ ability to provide more patient-centered care. Might we help our partners build a compassionate, respectful, caring (CRC) workforce?

Our ideas for how we might integrate compassion into our work are just beginning…

We also know that members of the Mali Health community are motivated from a place of compassion. You have told us time and again that you see solidarity at the heart of our work, and that is why you support us. You share your compassion with women and children in Mali, and us, because you believe that no one should suffer because they don’t have access to quality healthcare. Beyond your participation in our community, many of you are physicians, educators, or helpers of some kind. Your compassion, your desire to alleviate suffering, emerges in all areas of your life.

For us both, reflecting on compassion has led us to some rich and thought-provoking places. We are thinking about its role in our motivations as leaders, in the organization and team we support, and in our field. We wonder if you might have similar insights?

We want to open up the conversation about compassion in our communities – both in the US and in Mali – and we invite you to be a part of it. Let us know your thoughts about the role of compassion in your life – personal and professional. We’d love to hear from you. Send us an email, or leave us a note on social media.