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Creating a Compassionate Culture by Professor Aidan Halligan

9th April 2015

The word “compassion” sounds self-explanatory, but against the clamour of competing well-intended variants projecting devotion and dedication, it can be dumbed down and diluted.  And yet, it is a quality not given to everyone and is more complex and difficult to acquire than the simple provision of caring.  In many people’s minds, the NHS offers kindness to strangers, compassion by another name.  It’s like the wind, patients can feel it but they cannot see it.

Professor Aidan Halligan

Professor Aidan Halligan

Compassion always springs up, never trickles down.  Compassion is synonymous with courage and carelessness of self.  Good leaders create a compassionate environment where doctors and nurses can feel safe acting in patients’ best interests, which occasionally may mean acting against their own.  Compassion always costs but brings great personal fulfilment.  The best healthcare leaders communicate in an almost infectious manner the moral energy of compassion.  Compassion is not about ensuring “value for money” or “improving quality” (although it does) – it is much more about being true to your vocation and deep-seated motivation as you deliver healthcare – it’s about your integrity and understanding that integrity is what we do when no-one else is looking.

The greatest gift we can provide others who are suffering is not advice but encouragement – encouragement that draws its power from our having experienced similar sufferings that we’ve overcome ourselves.  When it comes to compassion, we cannot fake that emotion; we need to give ourselves permission to draw on our personal well of compassion that is accessible only if you give yourself permission to reach into.  We all think much tougher than we talk; we all talk much tougher than we act.  Compassion when given is so often a hugely personal gift to another human being that it’s hard to describe and to measure the transaction.  And just as courage draws almost unspeakable admiration from those who have witnessed it, compassion, likewise is recognised as a profound selflessness, which doesn’t need the traditional governance of accountability but is born from deeply and sincerely held values that find expression in the moment.  Compassion is the epitome of doing the right thing at a difficult moment.

Professor Aidan Halligan (Director Well North, Principal, NHS Staff College)


Aidan recommends reading the following article: Weir, J, M. Michael D, A., Cupples, M.E., Steele, K. (2015) From Hippocrates to the Francis Report – reflections on empathy.  The Ulster Medical Journal, 84(1): 8-12.

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