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Medical professionalism matters

Exploring the real life challenges experienced by today’s medical professionals and providing support that doctors want and need

Compassion and the challenges facing today’s doctors

Gareth Williams

At the fourth Medical professionalism matter event in Cardiff on 19 November, we tackled difficult questions about maintaining compassion in the face of increasing service pressures. Gareth Williams (@GarRWilliams), the GMC’s Liaison Adviser for Wales, reflects on the event and subsequent online discussion. 

Gareth at the compassionate doctor event

Gareth at the compassionate doctor event

At one point during the discussion about compassion on my table at the Medical professionalism matters event, two clear but conflicting opinions emerged:

  • Today’s doctors do not show enough compassion towards themselves and colleagues
  • Today’s doctors are overly empathetic and are therefore more negatively affected by complaints

Both very interesting suggestions, but I’d guess that the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Indeed, 59% of delegates at the event told us that doctors are no less compassionate today than they were 20 years ago. This sentiment was echoed by people joining in the discussion online:

However, we know that today’s health services are highly pressurised environments which can lead to high levels of stress among those providing frontline care. At the same time, the volume of complaints received by the GMC has risen significantly over the decade, although it is now slowing. It’s fair to say that we live in a society where people are more aware of their rights, and their expectations are rising.

Crux of the conversation

Conversations online and at the event suggested that the fractured nature of today’s healthcare teams didn’t encourage a compassionate atmosphere. Baroness Ilora Finlay, Chair of the National Council for Palliative Care, commented:

A team that functions well will be able to cope better with whatever it encounters.

This led to questions about whether integrating into teams is a particular challenge for FY1/FY2 doctors, with their constantly shifting rotas and working across a variety of wards and departments?

Something my table agreed on unanimously was the importance of listening. Without listening there can be no compassion or empathy; whether that’s for patients or for colleagues. But if listening is at the core of compassion, how can we create anchor points to bring teams together to discuss and listen?

Jackie Smith, Chief Executive of the Nursing and Midwifery Council and one of our event panellists, shared the feeling on her table that healthcare professionals need more time to deliver compassionate care:

Challenges put to the panel

One delegate opened the panel discussion with the question: ‘how do we ensure trainers model compassion?’ One participant on Twitter commented:

Our panellist, Mark Butler, Director of The People Organisation and co-author of the Trusted to Care report, said:

Individuals tend to find their own role models. Care is wider than the professional values of individuals.

The amazing graphic by @GraphicChange sums up the challenges facing a compassionate doctor discussed during the event better than I ever could.

Support available to doctors

One of our table members laid down the gauntlet – what can the GMC do about this? Firstly, the GMC’s standards for all medical education and training, Promoting Excellence, along with the results of the annual National trainee survey, can help to define what makes a positive training environment.

The GMC also publishes ethical guidance on a range of matters which can help support doctors in their daily practice. My role as Liaison Adviser is to bring this to life by facilitating interactive sessions for doctors across Wales on topics including confidentiality, maintaining professional boundaries and raising concerns. These sessions can hopefully play a small part in helping to support doctors, providing them with a constructive and reflective space; an anchor point with their colleagues away from the frontline.

Working with Cardiff and Swansea Universities, local Postgraduate Centres, the Wales Deanery and Royal Colleges, I look forward to taking this work forward in 2016 and beyond. If you’re reading this and you’re a doctor or medical student, hopefully I’ll be seeing you soon at a workshop or two!

The conversation about compassion and other challenges facing today’s doctors is not over. We want to hear your thoughts on compassion and resilience in medical practice. Do you have examples you can share of good practice from your experience or have you seen ideas that are worth taking forward elsewhere?

The next Medical professionalism matters events are in Belfast on 3 February 2016 discussing ‘the doctor as scholar’ and then in Glasgow on 5 April 2016 to talk about ‘putting safety and quality improvement first’.

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