Lessons in ‘compassionomics’

Prioritizing empathy is valuable approach for human, animal medicine

When selecting a physician, only 27% of patients said they look for someone who trained at a top-tier medical school, according to a 2004 Harris Poll in the Wall Street Journal. However, 81% of those surveyed reported specifically looking for a doctor who listens carefully, and 85% seek a doctor who would treat them with dignity and respect.

Further, 80% of respondents to the AVMA 2023 Pet Owner Attitudes Survey say they expect a veterinarian who they would allow to treat their pet to be personable and friendly.

"Health systems that really focus on the patient-client experience certainly see higher scores and more people want to choose them,” said Anthony Mazzarelli, MD, CEO and co-president of Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey. The way a provider interacts with patients makes a difference. People care much more about how you talk to them than they do your training or experience, he said.

Young veterinarian doctor in blue uniform talking to owner of pet
Veterinarians alleviate suffering through their actions just like their human medicine colleagues, said Anthony Mazzarelli, MD, CEO and co-president of Cooper University Health Care in New Jersey.

Dr. Mazzarelli gave the keynote address “Unpacking Lessons from Human Medicine” on October 25 at the annual AVMA Veterinary Business and Economic Forum held virtually. The health care expert and co-author of the books “Wonder Drug: 7 Scientifically Proven Ways That Serving Others Is the Best Medicine for Yourself” and “Compassionomics: The Revolutionary Scientific Evidence that Caring Makes a Difference” explained how compassion and serving others can improve health outcomes, enhance patient satisfaction, reduce burnout among human health care professionals, and improve wellbeing for patients and providers.

Empathy plus action

Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli
Witnessing and participating in acts of moral excellence pushes others to do the same thing, said Dr. Mazzarelli. (Photo courtesy of Cooper University Health Care)

When researching for this book, Dr. Mazzarelli reviewed hundreds of scientific abstracts and research manuscripts, which led him to the conclusion that in an epidemic of self serving, the cure is to serve others.

Dr. Mazzarelli said there are benefits to focusing on serving others, and those benefits help not only the providers personally and professionally, but also assist the people around them.

In veterinary medicine, “patient care is established through skillful use of the various components of communication,” according to the 2013 JAVMA article “Reactive versus empathic listening: what is the difference?

“When clients realize that we are empathically listening to them because we want to understand them, they are more likely to feel that we are serving them to the best of our ability,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Mazzarelli defined compassion as the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering coupled with an authentic desire to help. To him, compassion involves empathy plus action.

The relationship between burnout and compassion

Historically, training in the medical field has taught that highly compassionate providers risk burnout by caring too much. Dr. Mazzarelli disagreed with this position, saying that a systematic review of the literature found the opposite: 90% of studies on health care providers found an inverse relationship between compassion and burnout.

Compassionate workplaces benefit both patients and providers. According to a 2014 longitudinal study of employees and clients in a long-term care setting, a strong culture of compassion was associated with a better quality of life and fewer emergency room visits for patients, while providers had a better provider experience, better teamwork, less absenteeism, and less emotional exhaustion.

The more you connect with clients and show compassion the more purpose you feel, and it can actually help your business overall, Dr. Mazzarelli said. “Leaning in may be an antidote if done the right way.”

The brain and body when serving others

While there isn’t much data available about animal outcomes, “I would think the mechanism for the benefit to the veterinarian is going to be exactly the same,” Dr. Mazzarelli said.

Veterinarians alleviate suffering through their actions just like their human medicine colleagues. 

“Your brain and body change on serving others,” Dr. Mazzarelli said. Research has found these changes to be associated with a myriad of benefits, such as longer life, lower blood pressure, fewer cardiovascular events, less chronic inflammation, more strength and stamina, more energy, better sleep, and more happiness.

Each day, there are an incredible number of opportunities to practice empathy and be helpful to others, especially in the veterinary field.

By asking, “What can I do for others?” providers can tangibly make a difference. As a result, they will reap the benefits and so will those around them, Dr. Mazzarelli said.

“When you do well and help other people, they want to see you succeed,” he explained. “Not only does it impact you, but it pushes others to do the same.”

Language of Veterinary Care

The AVMA’s Language of Veterinary Care Initiative is a set of comprehensive resources designed to emphasize personal connections and enhanced communication between veterinarians and pet owner. These tools help clinicians use “language that works” when talking with clients about why and when they should go to the veterinarian, the range of services that a veterinary practice offers, and how to pay for veterinary services.