Say your doctor informed you that you are in need of a surgical procedure not covered by your insurance or one having a high deductible. Would you choose a surgeon who is warm and empathizes with your concerns but pay a higher price for your surgery? Or would you choose a surgeon who is cold and disinterested but charges you a lower price?

Apparently compassion trumps pricing for most people – according to a recent survey[1] published by HealthTap, a US-based Health technology company. In the survey, 85% of patients reported that compassion was very important to them, whereas only 31% of respondents cited cost as being very important to them when making a healthcare decision. Perhaps even more surprisingly, 94% of doctors who were surveyed reported that “being compassionate makes their patients more likely to follow their advice, thus demonstrably improving health outcomes.”

Seeing the importance that patients and physicians place on compassion, it may be helpful to explore what the necessary conditions are for compassion to occur and how these conditions are relevant to the medical travel patient.

I would submit that two conditions are often necessary before compassion can occur. Let’s work backwards:


In an article titled “The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion Is Everything,” the author states:

Empathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion takes it further. It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action.” [2]

Merriam-Webster defines empathy as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions.” However, empathy is of little value unless we act on it. As a healthcare organization, you may feel for those patients that must travel from thousands of miles away, to a new environment, language and culture; who experience anxiety about their medical condition, finances and the outcome of their treatment. However, if they are forced into a care continuum that has been developed for local patients, your empathy will have little impact on their care experience. Compassion is the active manifestation of Empathy.

 Empathy > Compassion

If empathy is a prerequisite for compassion, how do healthcare providers achieve empathy in their daily practice?

A clue can be found in the quote cited previously: “It’s understanding how someone feels and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating.” You can’t truly understand, imagine or relate to someone unless you get to know them and their unique circumstances, anxieties and wants. Understanding is the key to empathy.

Understanding > Empathy > Compassion

In an insightful article[3] about empathy in medical travel, published by Dr. Nizar Zein, Chairman Global Patient Services at Cleveland Clinic, Ohio, Dr. Zein writes: “Empathy, though sometimes innate, requires effective communication and shared experiences. Neither of these two requirements is easily achievable in the care of foreign patients.” In other words an effort needs to be made to understand the unique circumstances and needs of the medical travel patient. This should be done both in real-time interactions between hospital staff and patients (paying attention and listening) as well as in the strategic planning of your Medical Travel Care Continuum – e.g. in the processes, protocols and services you will develop for your medical travel program. Healthcare providers should be especially sensitive to cultural and language differences, needs related to travel and logistics, helping to orient the traveling patient and family members in a new environment and how all these elements and others might impact clinical guidelines and services.

Understanding how important compassion is to the overall medical travel experience and how it can even lead to improved healthcare outcomes should inspire healthcare providers to prioritize programs and initiatives that promote meaningful patient interactions and ultimately lead to a better understanding of the needs and expectations of traveling patients.

[1] Survey Reveals 85% Percent of Patients Choose Compassion Over Pricing When Choosing a Doctor. February 6, 2018. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20180206005704/en/Survey-Reveals-85-Percent-Patients-Choose-Compassion. Retrieved February 12, 2018.

[2] Chandler, L., The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion Is Everything 2016. http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/compassion-is-an-action-not-an-emotion. Retrieved February 12, 2018.

[3] Zein, N. Seeking medical care abroad: A challenge to empathy. Cleveland Clinic. November 2016. https://www.mdedge.com/ccjm/article/120392/hospital-medicine/seeking-medical-care-abroad-challenge-empathy. Retrieved February 13, 2018.