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Healing Power of Kindness

By Jennifer Dobner December 10, 2014 Posted in: Personal Health , Article

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - Researchers are making clear scientific connections between compassionate acts of kindness and health outcomes in patients, satisfaction with health care systems, and job satisfaction among medical providers, a new literature review of work from around the globe shows.

The review "The Healing Power of Kindness" was underwritten by Dignity Health and conducted by the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE) at Stanford University's School of Medicine.

It debuted Wednesday in San Francisco at Dignity Health's Compassion and Healthcare Conference, part of Compassion Week, a joint initiative by CCARE, the Charter for Compassion, and the Tenyin Gyatso Institute. The event seeks to stimulate discussion and action to transform the arenas of health care, education, business, and public service.

The review considered dozens of studies and data sets from researchers in social science and medicine, all of which shed light on the relationship between kindness and healing, says Dr. Monica Worline, an organizational psychologist who is an affiliate faculty member at the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business and also the president of Vervago, Inc., a consulting and training organization for businesses.

That research is beginning to unravel some of the long-held beliefs about a range of disciplines, she says.

"Fields like psychology, economics and to some degree health care have operated on this fundamental bias that the self is the most important thing... So something unusual would have to be happening in order for the self to bear a cost on behalf of another," says Worline. "Bringing all this literature together shows us that, in fact, the self is not so primary. Others actually figure much more predominately in our psychology than others have given credit for."

That should have significant implications for both caregivers and patients in a health care environment, she says.

"Being treated with kindness as a patient doesn't just change your level of satisfaction, it also changes some fundamental physiological experiences, such as how much pain you feel and how much your immune system is going to be capable of rising to the occasion when you are faced with a virus or an infectious disease," she says.

These findings are important for health care practitioners and administrators for a number of reasons.

In recent years, health organizations have seen a surge in patient-centered care. Simultaneously caregivers have reported skyrocketing experiences of stress and burnout, including among nearly half of all medical students, the report shows.

According to the report, many factors contribute to these harmful outcomes among practitioners. Some surveys also found part of the damage of negative working conditions can be traced to the undermining of compassionate care and kindness in social connections.

In addition, a survey from the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare (1) found that both patients and physicians agree that compassionate care is critical to successful medical treatment, but both groups found it lacking in current systems. And only about half of patients and healthcare providers experience compassionate care, the report shows.

According to the report, many factors contribute to these harmful outcomes among practitioners. But at least one survey (2) found part of the damage of negative working conditions can be traced to the undermining of compassionate care and kindness in social connections.

Worline says the gathering of this type evidence in a single source is important not just because it can justify or show why something should be considered important, but also because it helps researchers see places where they might otherwise have made connections.

"What's been lacking in the past is both the statistical and physiological evidence to back up those stories... that makes the hard-nosed scientist go, 'Hmm, that's interesting,'" she says.

Her hope is that the compiled research will begin to make a case that kindness, which may once have seemed like a "fuzzy and nice" idea, has physiological and neurological underpinnings that are real and by extension help health care providers and administrators see the work as more than just the next fad in the patient satisfaction movement.

"This is something we can show at the biological level," Worline says. "And that means more people will start to pay attention. I think it's one of the keys to opening up space in the health care system and getting people to listen."


  1. Cramer J, Rosenheck R, Kirk G, Krol W, Krystal J: Medication compliance feedback and monitoring in a clinical trial: Predictors and outcomes. Value Health 2003, 6:566-573.
  2. Del Canale S, Louis DZ, Maio V, Wang X, Rossi G, Hojat M, Gonnella JS: The relationship between physician empathy and disease complications. Acad Med 2012, 87:1243-1249.
  3. Fogarty LA, Curbow BA, Wingard JR, McDonnell K, Somerfield MR. (1999). Can 40 seconds of compassion reduce patient anxiety? J Clin Oncol, 17:371-379.
  4. Hojat, M., Louis, D., Maxwell, K. et al., (2011). A brief instrument to measure patients overall satisfaction with primary care physicians. Family Medicine, 43:6, 412-417.
  5. Kim SS, Kaplowitz S, Johnston MV: The effects of physician empathy on patient satisfaction and compliance. Eval Health Prof 2004, 27:237-251.
  6. Neumann M, Edelhäuser F, Tauschel D, Fischer MR, Wirtz M, Woopen C, Haramati A, Scheffer C: Empathy decline and its reasons: A systematic review of studies with medical students and residents. Acad Med 2011, 86:996-1009.
  7. Nunes P, Williams S, Sa B, Stevenson K: A study of empathy decline in students from five health disciplines during their first year of training. Int J Med Educ 2011, 2:12-17.
  8. Rakel DP, Hoeft TJ, Barrett BP, Chewning BA, Craig BM, Niu M. (2009). Practitioner empathy and the duration of the common cold. Family Medicine, 41:494-501.
  9. Wilson SE, Prescott J, Becket G: Empathy levels in first- and third-year students in health and non-health disciplines. Am J Pharm Educ 2012, 76:24.

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