Thursday, 19 June 2008

Guess how much I love you

Some things in life can be counted, weighed and measured. Two books, half a bar of chocolate, three pounds of cherries, 50g of hand dyed cashmere yarn, a metre of string. Or perhaps two hours wait in in A&E, one hairline fracture, three beds, fifteen stitches.

Other things are less measurable, expect perhaps by comparison. How funny is Jeremy Hardy? Does he make you laugh more or less than Andy Hamilton? Is an oak tree lovelier than a copper beech? Is Brief Encounter the saddest film you've ever seen?

The government thinks nurses should be more compassionate. It also thinks this is something that can be measured. How do you measure compassion? If I am compassionate towards one old lady in the morning can I treat a second old lady like second class citizen in the afternoon and still reach my compassion target? How many times do I need to say "there, there" before I can record it as compassionate activity? Is mopping a brow more or less compassionate that fetching someone a cup of tea? What is compassion, anyway? What happens if I feel as though I am being compassionate, but the recipient of my compassion feels I am being patronising, maudlin, overly familiar or intrusive?

Compassionate care is a good idea - as is treating patients with dignity. We should also treat our colleagues with compassion and dignity. We know what these things are - we certainly recognise when they are absent. But there are some things in life that just can't be measured (Elizabeth Barrett Browning not withstanding) or made into targets. They are the very things that are most important.

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