A Passion for Compassion

Powering the SCQ

A Passion for Compassion

Dr. Shane Sinclair was interviewed by Hena Kon.

Hena Kon (HK): What sparked your interest in the subject of compassion?

Shane Sinclair (SS): I became interested in compassion when I worked as a spiritual health practitioner at a dedicated palliative care unit and later at an outpatient cancer clinic. While sitting at the bedside, I heard patients say, “I really love that nurse” or “I have the best oncologist.” When I asked why they felt that way, inevitably, the answer always came down to compassion. It also struck me that despite differences among various faiths and spiritual traditions, compassion is the ultimate litmus test for what it means to be truly human. Interestingly, even Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin placed compassion at the top rung of the evolutionary ladder.

HK: In your research, you make the distinction between sympathy, empathy and compassion. What are the definitions of each and why does this matter?

SS: Sympathy is a pity-based response to a distressing situation that is characterized by a lack of relational understanding and the self-preservation of the observer. It frequently creates barriers between the healthcare professional and the patient. Empathy is an affective response that acknowledges and attempts to understand an individual’s suffering through emotional resonance. Compassion is a virtuous response that seeks to address the suffering and needs of a person through relational understanding and action. Compassion requires what I call “sweat equity” – action that takes empathy to the next level.

In one of our studies, even patients as young as eight instinctively knew the difference. Regardless of age and gender, the patients we surveyed disliked sympathy and had a strong preference for compassion.

HK: How can healthcare professionals offer compassion to their patients?

SS: It’s really about going above the call of duty and also tempering routine healthcare with compassion. It’s simple extras like a physician ending a visit by asking the patient,” Can I get you a blanket or a glass or water?” or a nurse describing a procedure before she starts, telling the patient, “This might prick a bit.” Whenever people tell me they don’t have time for compassion, my answer always is, “Do you have 40 seconds?” Because that is all patients need to feel compassion from their providers.

HK: Why is it important to measure compassion and how did you go about doing so?

challenge modelSS: Along with my team in the Compassion Research Lab, I developed the Sinclair Compassion Questionnaire (SCQ), a clinically relevant, user-friendly tool that quantifies the impact of compassion on a healthcare team or organization. The SCQ is recognized as the most valid and reliable compassion measure for research, practice, and healthcare system evaluation. Over time, it helps healthcare teams improve quality of care at the bedside.

HK: Is compassion innate? Can it be taught?

SS: The capacity for compassion is innate. That being said, we can all cultivate compassion. Our lab recently received CIHR funding to develop competency-based accredited compassion training for healthcare providers.

HK: Healthcare personnel are under enormous pressure to provide efficient, cost-effective care. The COVID pandemic has led to high rates of demoralization and burnout. How can we make room for compassion in the context of the current crisis in healthcare?

SS: The pandemic exposed a lack of compassion at the systems and policy levels – what happened in long-term care is a good example. The suffering of patients in all areas has traumatized healthcare professionals. The pandemic really highlighted the fact that we don’t operate in a compassionate system and that the imperative to be compassionate cannot fall on the shoulders of healthcare providers alone.

HK: What puts the spring in your step?

SS: Seeing how my research continues to make a difference to patients at the bedside is inspiring and motivating. After 15 years of doing this work, it is gratifying to know that there is a consensus within the healthcare system that compassion matters. We have shown that compassion improves the patient experiences, patient outcomes, quality care ratings and the well-being of health care providers. No other form of care has more impact on all these areas than compassion.

Shane Sinclair, PhD, is Associate Professor and Cancer Care Research Professor with the University of Calgary, Faculty of Nursing. Professor Sinclair is a former Canadian Institutes of Health Research Postdoctoral Fellow (University of Manitoba), a recipient of the Canadian Association for Spiritual Care Award of Excellence in Research, and a top 40 under 40 awardee. He is the author of over 75 peer-reviewed publications.

To learn more: Compassion Research Lab | Home; Videos

Back to top