Compassionate Patient Care: A Registered Nurse (RN) Guide

The foundation of nursing is compassionate care. It’s a simple statement that sounds obvious, but it’s more complex than it seems. Compassion is much more than ordinary kindness. It can’t be measured by a test or be seen under a microscope, and it’s tough to define clearly because it’s patient-dependent and may never look the same way twice. In a world where health care is increasingly ruled by technology, the compassion of an RN is every bit as important to patient outcomes as pills and procedures.

What Does Compassionate Care Look Like?

Compassion is about treating people holistically, not as the sum of their illnesses and complaints. Patients in any medical setting feel vulnerable. Their stories and bodies sit before strangers and that evokes strong emotional responses. For an RN, it means recognizing and addressing the unique physical, psychological, social and cultural needs of each person.

  • For a frightened mother of a sick son, it may mean keeping her informed about changes in his condition or just holding her hand.
  • For a new father, it may be patiently answering the same questions over and over until he feels reassured.
  • For a religious person, it means delivering care with respect for one’s beliefs, whether shared or not.
  • For a child with cancer, words of encouragement and hope may be what it takes, along with a few toys and games.
  • For an elderly man with dementia, it may be listening to the same tired joke a thousand times without forgetting to laugh.

And for all patients it means paying more attention to them than the IV pump by the bed, listening without interruption, addressing them respectfully, supporting their dignity, respecting their rights and not minimizing their concerns, no matter how minor they may seem.

What it Takes to Be a Compassionate Caregiver

Anyone considering nursing school has a basic grasp of what caring means, but an RN learns to build on that understanding to provide compassionate, patient-centered care.

What does patient-centered mean? It means that in a relationship between an RN and a patient. The many needs of the patient come first, and while that seems reasonable, caregiving relationships can be intense and emotional, pushing the limits of professional boundaries.

To be a truly compassionate caregiver, an RN must be:

  • Honest without being judgmental
  • Open without oversharing
  • Kind without neglecting their own needs
  • Empathetic without losing themselves in others’ problems
  • Hopeful, but realistic
  • Strong, but vulnerable
  • Helpful while respecting personal boundaries
  • Knowledgeable, but open to learning new things
  • Caring while encouraging personal responsibility
  • Thoughtful, but practical

Compassion is the foundation of caring, and nurses must be as gentle and understanding toward themselves as they are to others. It’s a skill, and it takes effort to learn, but the good news is that with patience, a simple spark of kindness can nurture and cultivate into the mature compassion an RN needs on the job.

Does Compassion Improve Outcomes?

Outcomes have historically been reported from the medical community’s point of view. Doctors and hospitals report how successful their medical treatments are, and nurses document how patients respond to those efforts. As measured in raw percentages, it’s an important way to tell what’s working, what isn’t and when it’s time to make changes. What it doesn’t tell is the patient’s perception of what happened and how it affected them personally. Without that, the outcome picture isn’t complete.

The effects of compassion are hard to measure. Therefore, the use of patient- and-family-reported outcomes is on the rise today, and it’s proving to be the truest, most effective way to measure total wellness outcomes.

Consider this case and how a nurse’s compassion made a difference:

An older, obese woman saw her doctor about back pain. The doctor told her not to eat for six months and to call back then if the discomfort didn’t subside, blaming the pain on excess weight without considering other potential causes. Three weeks later, she went to the emergency room for the same symptoms and was admitted for a serious ascending urinary tract infection and treated with ten days’ worth of IV antibiotics.

On a post-hospitalization survey, the client was asked about her satisfaction with hospital services. She discussed her negative experience with her doctor and reported that in contrast, her primary RN spoke candidly with her about weight issues without being judgmental, sharing her own struggle with excess pounds and helping her identify new treatment options that could help. As a result, she felt encouraged and willing to consider another weight loss effort. She further commented that she waited three weeks to seek additional medical help for her symptoms because of embarrassment about her weight.

From the compassionate care perspective, there were clear successes and failures in this situation, starting with a physician who demonstrated an astonishing lack of human kindness, poor communication skills, prejudice toward those suffering from obesity and little understanding about the diverse circumstances that lead to it.

He was not wrong to suggest that being overweight is a top risk factor for back pain. In fact, it was his responsibility, but his crass comment slammed the door on effective communication, inspired no meaningful action on the part of the client and contributed to a lengthy delay in care that could have had significant health consequences.

The nurse, however, found a way to relate to her compassionately. She openly discussed her own weight loss story, intervened with words of encouragement and gave her actionable information about new treatments for obesity. She understood the practical, emotional and social needs of her patient, demonstrating empathy while emphasizing personal responsibility. The result is a woman who now views the health care system more favorably, and although she may not ultimately be successful in her weight loss journey, she feels encouraged to try. That is a positive outcome.

Consistently, hospitals find when clients and families take the time to return outcome surveys, comments are more focus on the level of kindness and compassion they experienced during their stay than the treatments they received. When measuring outcomes, can the improvement in a patient’s compliance with their doctor’s weight loss recommendations because of the encouragement of a compassionate caregiver be measured as a percentage? Is the happiness of a man with dementia quantifiable in numbers?

Not yet, but as the importance of compassion in health care grows, assessment tools are evolving that are helping capture patient satisfaction with things like emotional support. In the meantime, the obvious benefits of compassion on final outcomes can’t be ignored, making it a vital part of nursing education and creating exciting opportunities for RNs in the future as the medical community looks for ways to make compassionate care the standard across disciplines, not just a buzz-word.

Did learning about compassionate patient care interest you? The Associate of Science in Nursing degree program at Gwinnett College provides training to prepare college graduates to enter the nursing profession as a registered nurse.  Classroom theory, challenging assignments, skill labs, simulations, and clinical experiences help to prepare college graduates for an entry-level nursing position. 

Upon successful completion of the program and demonstrated nursing competence, the college graduates will be eligible to apply to take the NCLEX-RN licensure examination.*   Upon graduation and licensure, college graduates will be eligible to seek employment in hospitals, clinics, private duty, urgent and acute care centers, and various other medical or business facilities requiring the services of registered nurses.

*While Gwinnett Institute provides test preparation and review assistance to college students, it cannot guarantee any college student will be able to take or pass any type of licensure exam.  College students must be mindful throughout their entire training program that licensure is a pre-requisite for employment as a nurse and to diligently prepare themselves to meet this important requirement.

Contact us today to learn more about becoming an RN at Gwinnett College.