What COVID-19 Teaches Us About Compassion

By Ralph Snyderman


One of the few bright rays of light emanating from the fearful COVID-19 pandemic has been the service and bravery of frontline workers who have enabled the safety of the rest of us hunkered down in our homes. Of those who risk their wellbeing for others, none have received more justifiable attention than our health care workforce. Their bravery and humanity in the face of often horrific circumstances of fear, sickness, suffering, and death have been extraordinary. Stories of their deep engagement with sick, sometimes dying, patients and their families are tremendously uplifting in these uncertain times. What shines through is the remarkable compassion inherent in health care workers and so greatly valued by those in need of care. Indeed, compassion is often a key driver for individuals to choose a career in health care.

So why does such an outpouring of compassion need a pandemic to be broadly manifest? It is because the underlying health care system has not been designed to enable, let alone encourage, compassion. Pressures of productivity, lack of time, and crushing bureaucracy expunge compassion from all but the heartiest of health care workers in normal times. Provider burnout and job dissatisfaction have become increasingly problematic and care givers frequently don’t have the time they want or need to engage deeply with their patients.

I firmly believe in the inherent compassion within all individuals, particularly those who choose careers to serve others. One great lesson we can all learn from this terrible pandemic is that as we emerge from it, we must focus on enabling the good in people to be more easily manifest.

In health care, we must refocus our attention on the need and value of compassion and redesign our approach to care to enable its expression to blossom. This can be done and the result will be valued not only by those needing and giving care, but the outcomes will be far more cost effective.

By Ralph Snyderman, MD – featured in The News & Observer