A simple act of kindness can be the best medicine

Back when I was an aspiring medical student, I was asked what was the most important thing I could give a patient. “Care and kindness”, I said.

My reply wasn’t greeted with enthusiasm.

Didn’t I think the latest high-tech treatments were more important than kindness and empathy? Well, no, I didn’t. And I still don’t.

As a junior doctor I also remember being taught I should never let myself get emotionally involved with a patient but I found I gave my best medicine when I was emotionally involved.

A British Medical Journal editorial highlights the therapeutic value of warm ­relationships in healthcare.

As the authors Klaber and Bailey say, this reflects a big shift that’s ­occurring in medicine. Evidence is growing on the importance of kinship and kindness for health and wellbeing.

In a report for the Carnegie UK Trust, Julia Unwin describes kindness as “disruptive” – a force for changing relationships between people, ­institutions, and organisations.

She argues the need to balance the “rational” and the “relational”.

Achieving this requires a big shift away from focus on value for money, evidence, targets, ­professional boundaries and accountability in healthcare, to an approach emphasising relationships, connections and trust.

One major obstacle to this humane approach is an inherent bias in the NHS towards measuring things, achieving quotas and valuing figures far more than human results.

Kindness has for too long been described in apologetic terms and people are reluctant to use it as a tool because “it’s seen as soft and fluffy”.

An interesting study on the role of ­kindness in patients with cancer ­identified six types: deep listening, clear empathy, generous acts of ­discretionary effort that go beyond what patients and families expect, timely care that reduces stress and anxiety, gentle honesty in discussions and conversations, and thoughtful support for families and carers.

It strikes me they should all be at the heart of healthcare.

Mark Britnell of the professional services company KPMG argues that despite our enthusiasm for technical innovation, “the kind touch and warm heart of a human being is the essence of care”.

He wants staff to reconnect with patients to foster the fulfilled and motivated workforce we need.

Why is kindness essential? Well, the emotion experienced by people receiving or giving kindness can bring about change.

As Marshall Ganz of Harvard University says: “Hope inspires us and, in concert with self-efficacy (the feeling that you can make a difference) and solidarity (love, empathy), can move us to act.”

Perhaps we need to start valuing kindness as a contributor to wellbeing.