Scientists have come up with a new way to measure compassion and use it to the benefit of patients, it has been revealed.

In a journal entitled Health Expectations, the researchers from the University of Rochester Medical Center has unveiled the results of a study in which they have identified compassionate words and statements which are the most effective on the terminally ill.

The analysts believe that they are the first to systematically pinpoint and catalogue compassionate words and actions in doctor-patient conversations.

By breaking down the dialogue and studying the context, scientists are hoping to transform the way doctors approach sick people in hospital.

Even relatively simple words such as “Good to see you. I’m sorry. It sounds like you’ve had a tough, tough, week” or light-hearted humour can have a profound effect on the psychology of those unlucky enough to find themselves in hospital. It can also influence the way they feel about healthcare professionals and their treatment.

Commenting on the findings, senior investigator Ronald Epstein, professor of Family Medicine, Psychiatry, Oncology, and Nursing, said: “In health care, we believe in being compassionate but the reality is that many of us have a preference for technical and biomedical issues over establishing emotional ties.”

Mr Epstein is also an international keynote speaker and investigator on mindfulness and communication in medical education.

His team recruited 23 oncologists from a variety of private and hospital-based oncology clinics in the US who agreed to be recorded as part of the study.

In contrast to empathy – another quality that Epstein and his colleagues have studied in the medical community – compassion involves a deeper and more active imagination of the patient’s condition. An important part of this study, therefore, was to identify examples of the three main elements of compassion: recognition of suffering, emotional resonance, and movement towards addressing suffering.

Emotional resonance, or a sense of sharing and connection, was illustrated by this dialogue: Patient: “I should just get a room here.” Doctor: “Oh, I hope you don’t really feel like you’re spending that much time here.”

Researchers also observed non-verbal communication, such as pauses or sighs at appropriate times, as well as speech features and voice quality (tone, pitch, loudness) and other metaphorical language that conveyed certain attitudes and meaning.

Compassion unfolds over time, researchers concluded. During the process, they claim, physicians must challenge themselves to stay with a difficult discussion, which opens the door for the patient to admit uncertainty and express their feelings.

The study added: “It became apparent that compassion is not a quality of a single utterance but rather is made up of presence and engagement that suffuses an entire conversation.”

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