Definition of compassion in healthcare: a systematic literature review

Int J Palliat Nurs. 2016 Dec;22(12):599-606. doi: 10.12968/ijpn.2016.22.12.599.


Aim: To reflect on the definition of compassion and analyse the concepts encompassed by the term.

Background: A large number of authors have defined compassion, with certain nuances that differ from case to case. This raises the need for specificity in the definition of the term.

Data sources: First, a systematic search was conducted of scientific databases. Second, a selection of experts were consulted and a request made to them for specific articles. Third, the snowball method was used.

Design: The keywords used in the literature search were 'compassion' and 'empathy', a MeSH term given for compassion. There are terms, such as self-compassion, compassion meditation, compassion fatigue and mindfulness, which, owing to their specific nature, were not included, because this study deals with the general aspects of compassion.

Results: The systematic search found 104 articles, of which 6 articles were selected after applying the inclusion and exclusion criteria. The eight experts provided a total of 14 references, of which seven articles met the inclusion criteria. Finally, 15 references were identified with the snowball method (n=28).

Conclusions: Compassion originates as an empathic response to suffering, as a rational process which pursues patients' wellbeing, through specific, ethical actions directed at finding a solution to their suffering. We therefore define the term compassion to mean the sensitivity shown in order to understand another person's suffering, combined with a willingness to help and to promote the wellbeing of that person, in order to find a solution to their situation. This should be a duty in healthcare professionals' daily work.

Keywords: Compassion; Definition; Empathy.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Delivery of Health Care*
  • Empathy*
  • Ethics, Clinical
  • Humans
  • Terminology as Topic*