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When providers care for patients with an incurable disease such as cancer, they often experience profound emotional disturbances known as “compassion fatigue,” according to an analysis by the Indiana University (IU) School of Medicine and Regenstrief Institute in Indianapolis. The research included a review of 57 studies to identify the prevalence of compassion fatigue among cancer-care providers and how to detect, treat,and prevent it.1

People who are drawn to healthcare careers may be more likely to develop compassion fatigue because of their drive for perfection and need to do their best for their patients, according to the study's principal investigator,Caroline Carney Doebbeling, MD, MSc, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry at the IU School of Medicine.

Compassion fatigue goes beyond empathy for patients. Symptoms include chronic fatigue and irritability, a lack of joy, and engaging in risky behaviors such as excessive drinking. Other problems associated with compassion fatigue include cynicism, boredom, decreased productivity, and more sick days and higher turnover for hospitals and medical practices.

Dr. Carney Doebbeling suggests that nurses and physicians must be better trained in schools and residencies regarding what to expect and how to deal with patients with cancer. In addition, supervisors and colleagues in the workplace should be made more aware of compassion fatigue triggers and symptoms. “The healthcare team must be steady sources of support for the patient,” she noted in a news release. “But when the patient encounter is over…the doctor or nurse or socialworker or clerk needs to be able to process everything they have seen and experienced.”

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1. Najjar N, Davis LW, Beck-Coon K, Carney Doebbeling C. Compassion fatigue: a review of the research to date and relevance to cancer-care providers. J Health Psychol. 2009;14:267–277.