Cancer Health Care Providers Face Compassion Fatigue

Working every day with cancer patients, many of whom will not get better, can leave health care staff exhausted and demoralized.

The term compassion fatigue began to be used in the 1990’s to describe physical and emotional affects sometimes experienced by health care professionals caring for patients facing  limited possibilities of recovery.   It goes beyond empathy or feeling bad  for their patients and leads to setting up walls of distance from patients as a means of self-protection.

Researchers at Indiana University School of Medicine and Regenstrief Institute reviewed almost sixty studies of compassion fatigue, finding that it often takes a toll not only on the health care workers who experience it but in the places where they work.

People with compassion fatigue are tired and irritable.  They may drink too much or engage in other destructive behaviors. Sometimes they painfully re-live the deaths of their patients.

Compassion fatigue can lead caregivers to try to protect or insulate themselves by loss of compassion, cynicism, or boredom.  Other staff members may notice their decreased productivity and more frequent sick days.  Eventually, the syndrome leads to dissatisfaction and turnover.
Dr. Carney Doebbeling, a psychiatrist at the IU Simon Cancer Center asks,

How do you deal with compassion fatigue if you see patients every single day? In order to provide the best care to patients, the system, beginning with training in nursing and medical schools and residency, has to do a better job of helping those who go into cancer care learn what to expect and how to deal with it. On the job we need to create supportive work environments where supervisors and colleagues are aware that those who care for the sickest of the sick may be vulnerable to the triggers that could bring about compassion fatigue.

Dr. Doebbeling continues,

We are taught in medicine to be brave and to be strong, but there should also be a time and place for emotional expression, and perhaps even for crying. Doctors, nurses and other members of the healthcare team must be steady sources of support for patient. But when the patient encounter is over, at the end of the day, the doctor or nurse or social worker or clerk needs to be able to process everything they have seen and experienced. We need to support people who work with the sickest of the sick.

SOURCE: Najjar et al.,Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 14, Number 2, March 2009.

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