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Published online: 2024-01-05

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Compassion for others as perceived by medical and non-medical students: a content analysis

Małgorzata Joanna Fopka-Kowalczyk1


Background: For adequate help and a compassionate attitude towards the suffering of others, the ability to properly define and understand this category seems essential. This study aims to analyse how compassion is understood by medical and non-medical students, as well as analyse how students from both groups understand compassion for others, what characteristics they believe a compassionate person or a compassion seeker possesses, and what factors hinder the adoption of a compassionate attitude in a relationship with a suffering person.

Participants and methods: A qualitative study analyzing the content of oral and written statements of 274 students of the second year of medical studies, the first and second year of a second-cycle program in pedagogy, the first year of a uniform master's degree program in special education and courses preparing for the teaching profession.

Results: Students equate compassion with understanding of the other. For medical students, compassion is associated with pity and self-pity, and to a lesser extent with empathy. For non-medical students, compassion is a form of empathy, although it is also identified with pity. The characteristics of compassionate people include kindness, the ability to listen and be present, as well as showing care and warmth, but also it is a fear of criticism. Compassion-seekers are weak, in difficult life situations or aware of their difficulties. Fear of being judged and suspected of being unprofessional (medical students) and fear of overinvolvement (non-medical students).

Conclusions: Students understand compassion for others in varied ways, often as pity or lack of professionalism, which is inconsistent with the definition of the issue. In addition to misunderstood compassion, fear of judgement and criticism and the lack of adequate models of skilful compassionate care hinder the adoption of the attitude. The results of the study indicate the need to integrate the issue of compassion into pre-graduate education to a greater extent than hitherto.

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Palliative Medicine in Practice