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Reassuring patient

Our compassionate health care revolution

Posted on by mlothamer

Gwen Gaston has devoted her career to nursing patients through life and death situations. As the Dean of Nursing at Dallas Nursing Institute, she helps prepare a new generation of nursing professionals to provide the compassionate care today’s patients—and health care providers—demand.

by Gwen Gaston, MSN, RN

When the Affordable Care Act was passed by Congress in 2010, it was a step in the right direction. It meant that health care providers could no longer discriminate against patients with pre-existing conditions and every American, regardless of employment status, would have access to affordable health care.

However, as a national survey illustrates, one of the most important ingredients for quality patient care is still a work in progress—compassion.

While 800 hospitalized patients and 510 physicians agreed that compassionate care is important, only 53 percent of patients and 58 percent of physicians surveyed said the current health care system delivered.

As a nursing professional with more than 20 years of experience in health care, I knew exactly what they were talking about. Having worked on the front lines, I’ve seen what a dose of compassion can do for patients and their families.

So while the ACA has been beneficial on many levels, I know we can do better. Because the fact of the matter is, you cannot legislate compassion. But you can work to create the conditions so that compassionate care is a priority for both health care systems at large and individual practitioners.

If you think about it, most health care or hospital environments are cold and sterile places for patients who, by virtue of being there, are likely at their most vulnerable. Receiving care from a practitioner who treats them with compassion, warmth, and empathy is proven to make all the difference in patient satisfaction.

To me, that’s just common sense.

However, as I tell our students at DNI, there is a difference between sympathy and empathy—whether it’s for the patient in crisis or the family coping with the aftermath. I experienced this myself, first hand, when I was a nurse working in the intensive care unit of a Detroit hospital.

Mother to Mother: A Compassionate Call

It’s a night I will never forget. A 19-month-old child had been taking a bath with his two siblings, ages 6 and 3. The 14-year-old babysitter stepped out of the room, the 19-month old put his mouth on the spigot, and it got stuck. He had suffocated on the water, and the minute I saw that child, I knew he was not going to make it.

All I could think about was the mother, who was hysterical witnessing this tragedy play out before her eyes. As a nurse and a mom, I knew what needed to happen. I couldn’t let that child die in a hospital bed.

Everyone on the floor was saying to me, there’s no way this mother can hold this child in this condition. He was hooked up to about 20 IVs. It didn’t seem possible. But I was determined. “There’s no way this mom cannot hold this child,” I remember saying. “I’m going to make it happen.”

And I did. She got to hold him, she got to grieve, and she had the privilege of watching this child take his last breath. Yes, she sobbed, and yes, it was horrendous, but that act of compassion was the first step in her recovery.

Compassionate Care Index Unveiled

In 2011, a year after the ACA passed into law, the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare was founded in part to advocate for the inclusion of a Compassionate Care Index (CCI) as part of our new national quality standards.

“For most clinicians, compassionate care matters because it is fundamental to the practice of medicine, ethically sound, and humane,” lead author Dr. Beth Lown, medical director of the Schwartz Center, wrote in that inaugural report.

The Schwartz Center took it one step further in 2015 by publishing a white paper that surveyed the role of compassionate care and patient experience in 35 U.S. hospitals and health systems—making a case to national health care providers that compassionate care should be built into the bottom line.

Patients who receive compassionate care are happier, their outcomes are more positive, and the caregivers themselves experience higher job satisfaction, their research showed. Even CNN has reported on the importance of bedside manner.

It’s a win-win for everyone. And I believe that our students here at DNI are ideally suited to be part of this compassionate care revolution.

The DNI Difference

Nursing is a science and a service.

As a mother, I was able to show compassion to that mother in crisis because I was able to empathize with what she was going through. I firmly believe that compassionate care can be taught, and it’s a significant emphasis in Dallas Nursing Institute’s curriculums. That’s why I’m confident DNI graduates are a step above the rest when it comes to compassionate care.

Through the DNI experience, our students get to see that, even though we are all different, we are alike. We have the same aches, the same yearnings, and the same needs.

These lessons are the foundation for compassion, and ultimately, the foundation for success as DNI graduates. As nursing professionals, they enter the workforce with the ability to see the whole person and provide the level of high quality, compassionate care today’s evolving health care industry demands.


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Gwen Gaston, MSN, RN

Recently appointed as Dean of Nursing at Dallas Nursing Institute, Gaston has more than 20 years of experience as a nursing professional and in leading nursing education teams. A significant portion of her work is focused on diversity issues within the field, specifically addressing issues of cross-cultural communication.




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