May 30, 2022

Compassion in Healthcare & Flourishing with Dr. David Addiss (podcast)

When healthcare is infused with compassion, it can influence multiple domains of human flourishing.

By Templeton Staff

A decades-long career guided by a willingness to offer compassionate care to his patients has led Dr. David Addiss, MD to consider compassion as a scientific researcher. Addiss and a team of several colleagues are one of Templeton World Charity Foundation's eleven Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing awardees. Their research aims to discover the meaning and mechanisms of human flourishing in the context of suffering; to understand how compassion alleviates suffering and promotes flourishing in healthcare settings; and to develop large-scale evidence-based programs to promote compassionate, high-quality national health systems.

Addiss draws on both his experience as a global health physician and as a patient in this conversation with Stories of Impact podcast.

Meaning, purpose, and healthcare

Addiss believes America's medical system is currently in crisis because it does not consider the full potential role of healthcare in promoting human flourishing. To revolutionize the way healthcare in America is considered and delivered, Addiss says we must begin to understand the different forms of suffering or motivations for people seeking healthcare. We need to understand the elements of compassionate care as it's currently envisioned, and also look at how compassionate care might influence multiple domains of flourishing, not solely physical healing.

The system, Addiss contends, has not been mindful about how it brings technology into the relationship between clinician and patient. He also points out that the system's for-profit motive has created distorted incentives. These aspects of the system are distancing healthcare workers from their original motivation to practice: care, love, and compassion.


Compassion is what love does in the presence of suffering or in response to suffering.


"In my mind, it's not a matter of reducing the clinical science or of trading technical excellence for compassion. It's a matter of infusing compassion into the work," says Addiss. "Science gives us the tools, but what is it that motivates the use of those tools? What is it that guides those tools in a wise way, that actually addresses the needs of the person and not just alleviation of a certain disease?"

Addiss's research is looking for ways to help reconnect practitioners with the meaning and purpose behind their work: "We're engaging in conversations with people that I would call exemplars, people who are known or health systems that are known for their compassionate care. We want to understand — what sustains them in that work? What challenges do they face? What advice might they have for others, for us, if we want to reimagine healthcare as a compassionate enterprise."

The link between time, presence, and compassion

When Addiss suffered his own health crisis — a herniated disc requiring surgical intervention —  he experienced medicine as a patient rather than a practitioner. His understanding of and interest in the idea of compassion grew. "When I was in the hospital, I got excellent surgical care, excellent clinical care. But I didn't really experience compassion, except from one phlebotomist... Our encounter every night was only about two minutes, but something about her presence communicated to me a sense that I was being seen." Even though her job was simply to draw blood, she was able to communicate compassion by acknowledging the suffering he was experiencing.

"Compassion is what love does in the presence of suffering or in response to suffering," says Addiss. He views compassion as having three different elements — awareness, empathy, and action. Action may be as simple as being present. "The action itself is not some grand project. It may be simply presence, and in many situations — palliative care, hospice care — one's presence is the action that matters the most."

He also finds there is a direct link between time and compassion. While past generations of medical doctors, or indigenous caregivers may have had less technology with which to care for those in their communities, they did have more time and mental space to be present for their patients. Addiss believes that if today's doctors can reconnect with the reasons they were first drawn to care for others, there is the possibility for compassion to be more deeply and effectively woven into modern medicine.

"Already in the last few years, flourishing has started to infiltrate the language and the literature of fields of medicine. Palliative care is one area that highlights compassion and incentivizes that time, as well as working with patients and families to help direct the course of their treatment." 

Flourishing for providers and systems

When thinking of compassionate healthcare, Addiss urges consideration of what it requires for not just the patients, but also the providers and systems, to flourish. "There's a relational element that kind of transcends that duality of giving and receiving," he says. "It's not just a matter of teaching nurses and doctors how to meditate or to give them compassion meditation or resilience training. What's needed is a much larger, systemic change."

Listen with the player above to hear more details about Dr. Addiss's thoughts on what compassion means, its role in healthcare, and how it can help humans flourish.

Learn more about Grand Challenges for Human Flourishing.

Read the transcript from the interview conducted by journalist Richard Sergay, presented by writer/producer Tavia Gilbert, which features David Addiss, Global Health Ethics Officer & Director at The Task Force for Global Health, and director and founder of The Task Force’s Focus Area for Compassion and Ethics

Built upon the award-winning video series of the same name, Templeton World Charity Foundation’s “Stories of Impact” podcast features stories of new scientific research on human flourishing that translate discoveries into practical tools. Bringing a mix of curiosity, compassion, and creativity, journalist Richard Sergay and host Tavia Gilbert shine a spotlight on the human impact at the heart of cutting-edge social and scientific research projects supported by TWCF.