Healthcare Professional Burnout and Resilience

Is Healthcare Innovation Simply an Act of Compassion?

Northern Ontario covers 87% of Ontario’s land mass, is inhabited by 6% of the province’s population, and has the highest rates of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular, and respiratory disease in Ontario. Disease prevalence is highest in the 13% of Indigenous Northerners. Providing Northern Ontario health care in the future will be challenging as the lifestyles of our citizens include high rates of obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking, and substance abuse.  Within the Northern setting, physicians offer care that reflects their community’s needs and often includes a wider scope of practice allowing their patients to receive care closer to home. Optimizing and reforming health care in Northern Ontario and the rest of the province will require engagement of physician leaders, compassionate leadership, and innovation.

But what is the link between compassion and innovation? Is it possible that health care innovation is (simply) an act of compassion?

Reforming health care is not only the work of individual leaders. Rather, transformation is nurtured when organizations adopt enterprise-wide collaborative leadership models. It is the leadership within organizations that can role model and support a compassionate culture through influencing the actions of individuals within their organization.  Compassionate organizations are the result of compassionate acts. And leadership within organizations can support or discourage compassionate acts.

But what is compassion within the workplace and how can it be recognized. Atkins and Worline  propose compassion is a process that can be articulated and observed. Initially an individual notices or recognizes the suffering of another. Next the individual makes sense of the suffering, a cognitive process. This is followed by an emotional response where the individual feels empathy or concern for the suffering of the other. This can then lead to an action to alleviate the suffering in some way that is meaningful.

There is a growing body of evidence in health care that compassionate leadership is linked to a compassionate workplace which supports organizational innovation. Innovation involves taking risks and this requires the individual in the workplace to feel supported and valued. Innovation is possible when both the leadership and individuals within the organization accept the possibility of failure. And in many ways, failure can be reframed as suffering which can be addressed or alleviated within a workplace where compassionate acts are the norm.

As we ponder our roles and responsibilities in supporting the transformation of health care in Ontario where compassion is central in the way we give and receive care, where do we start? Consider an act of compassion when you witness the suffering of a colleague. Consider your leadership role in supporting the compassionate acts of others. Realize that both can be a catalyst for shifting your workplace culture to a compassionate and innovative organization that is a force for positive health care change in our communities.


About the author

Dr. James Goertzen
  • AffiliationNOSM

Dr, Goertzen is Assistant Dean, Continuing Education and Professional Development with the Northern Ontario School of Medicine.

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2 Responses on “Is Healthcare Innovation Simply an Act of Compassion?

  • Interesting perspective James! Compassion as Innovation…I think this might be important since innovation always involves risk, and risk includes the possibility of failure. Win or lose, compassion must surely be part of organizations that encourage innovation and forgives failure. It is puzzling to hear that “failure is not an option” when organizations or individuals are facing difficult challenges that require risk-taking. If risk was not a factor, it would not be a difficult challenge. Of course failure is an option! Not the preferred one clearly, but an option nonetheless. And when failure happens, whether or not the response is compassionate may signal the degree to which others are willing to risk and thus may enable or constrain innovation.

  • A compassionate culture is most effectively established where the
    Board and leaders throughout the agency perform in a compassionate manner. It should be evident in relationship dynamics, communications and decision making. Related: The Canadian Patient Safety Institute delivers the Effective Governance for Quality & Patient Safety program, which helps Boards, MDs, SLTs work together on this across Canada. The program addresses relationships as a Driver – this compassion discussion fits
    . CPSI may be intetested in including the above article on their resources.

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