What is compassionate innovation and why is it important?

By Krish Patel

Innovation Medical Technology

Compassionate innovation. What does it mean, and does innovation have the scope to be compassionate? Perhaps it would be appropriate to begin with defining each term separately.

Compassion can be typically understood by encapsulating four components: attending, understanding, empathising and helping. In the context of healthcare for example, the relationship between a healthcare professional and an elderly patient. In this scenario, compassion involves firstly paying attention to the other and noticing their suffering – attending. Secondly, the understanding component in this scenario would be understanding what is causing the other’s distress. An appraisal of the cause may be appropriate here. Next, the response to the patient should be empathetic – empathising. Finally, taking thoughtful and appropriate action to alleviate the other’s suffering – helping.

Innovation is often stimulated by a problem which confronts people, organisations or communities. Therefore, innovation can be defined as the introduction and application of processes, products, treatments or procedures, new to the team, department, organisation or system and intended to benefit patients, staff, the organisation or the wider society.

A study done by The King’s Fund titled ‘Caring to Change’ makes the initial statement that: “Only innovation can enable modern health care organisations and systems to meet the radically changing needs and expectations of the communities they serve. While adequate financial support is a necessary precondition, it is clear that more money on its own, without transformative change, will not be enough”. In a world where we are seemingly in a desperate search for new innovations and innovative solutions to various problems, there may be a neglect toward compassion. Rather, the solutions seem to lean toward increasing the financial injection as opposed to combining it with innovative compassion.

This isn’t achievable without the right type of leadership though. Compassionate leadership has the ability to create optimal conditions for innovation among individuals, teams and organisational functions as a whole. In this context, attending refers to paying attention to identify the key challenges that the staff may face. Next, the compassionate leaders would work in conjunction with their staff to make sense of and understand the challenges they may face. Empathetic leadership has been known to increase team member motivation, commitment and engagement. This also facilitates a more emotional environment which can be attributed to higher levels of creativity. Finally, the helping component in such role involves using thoughtful and intelligent action to help. In other words, leaders should support those they lead in their work.

The benefits to both the organisation and the customers they serve are obvious and can lead to next generation solutions and thinkers. A prime example of where compassionate innovation has the power to truly make a difference is within the NHS. It would be of no surprise to most that the NHS face extremely high levels of work demand, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic. It is here where compassionate leadership must prevail to facilitate the support of staff and innovation. Failure to do so would have detrimental effects on stress levels, absenteeism and staff turnover, making the patient experience worse.

Ultimately, compassionate innovation begins with the understanding that there is a human experience at the heart of a product or service. This approach to innovation is on the rise, commonly referred to as human-centred design. Moreover, instead of simply aiming to make a better version of something that already exists, it is to lean toward going back to the ‘drawing board’ and examining the underlying human truth that fundamentally should be addressed. Technology lives with us, growing and evolving with us - we change it and it changes us. Reports and spreadsheets do not always highlight what is happening when someone uses a product or service, nor does it engage with the thoughts, feelings, impressions or how it speaks for their personal aspirations. It is through empathy, reflection and compassion that we are able to innovate so that it truly benefits us as humans.