Is healthcare innovation simply an act of compassion?

April 6, 2018

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.

This article originally appeared on the AMS Blog in 2018 and is written by AMS Fellow Dr. James Goertzen.