Nursing students can be taught compassion

Senior lecturer tells RCN conference that undergraduates can learn about self-awareness, compassion and self-care 

Compassion can be taught to nursing students, new research from an Australian university has shown.

Pre-registration nursing students at the University of South Australia (UoSA) were questioned about their understanding of compassion before and after a specially designed online teaching module.

The findings suggest it is possible for undergraduate nursing students to learn about self-awareness, compassion and self-care practices to cultivate resilience.

Speaking at the RCN international nursing research conference in Edinburgh today (Friday), UoSA senior nursing lecturer Anne Hofmeyer said the research threw more light on an area of academic dispute over whether compassion is an inherent, as opposed to taught, trait.

‘There is ample evidence that compassion matters to patients – it’s fundamental to what it means to be a nurse,’ said Dr Hofmeyer. ‘Few studies have looked at how to teach this online in a digital learning environment.’

In total, 840 final-year students took the compassion module, but only 42 responded to open-ended questions after studying the course.

The module included an 18-minute University of Virginia video on compassionate care by its school of nursing dean Dorrie Fontaine, as well as selected readings.

Dr Hofmeyer said four major themes emerged from the research:

  • Being present – placing themselves in patients’ shoes and taking time to listen.
  • Acting to relieve suffering – doing things that matter and helping colleagues thrive.
  • Getting the basics right – being resilient, making positive lifestyle choices and having boundaries and support networks.
  • Practice as a newly qualified nurse – being mindful and having new insights.

Prior to taking the module, there was confusion about the definition of compassion, with the term being used interchangeably with qualities such as empathy, sympathy, pity and concern.

‘Notably, compassion is the intention to act to relieve the suffering of others, which distinguishes it from other caring qualities,’ said Dr Hofmeyer.

After taking the module, the nursing students had a ‘more nuanced’ view of compassion and were able to provide examples and rationale for practising compassion towards patients and colleagues.

‘The students talked about acting to help colleagues, about being resilient to understand that work goals are linked to safe practice, compassion and being able to "last" in a tough profession.'

Dr Hofmeyer added: ‘Some of [the students] said they hadn’t realised self-compassion is vital to practise compassion.’


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