Journal of General Internal Medicine

, Volume 35, Issue 1, pp 198–206 | Cite as

Compassion in the Clinical Context: Constrained, Distributed, and Adaptive

  • Amanda L. Roze des OrdonsEmail author
  • Lori MacIsaac
  • Jacqueline Hui
  • Joanna Everson
  • Rachel H. Ellaway
Original Research



Compassion is intrinsically situated within particular contexts and how these contexts can shape compassion has not been well-described.


The purpose of the study was to describe how individual and contextual challenges can impact compassion within critical care and palliative care settings.


This qualitative study adopted phenomenology and autoethnography to inform data collection, and principles of activity theory and realist inquiry for data interpretation.


Five clinicians who work in critical care (n = 3) and palliative care (n = 3) participated in the study.


Qualitative data were obtained from ethnographic observations, interviews, and focus groups. Participants observed and recorded field notes (n = 53) on instances of suffering and compassion in their workplace settings. At the end of the study period, they participated in a focus group or individual interview to reflect on their experiences. Data was analyzed using constructivist grounded theory techniques and iteratively synthesized through group discussion and model building.

Key Results

The findings reflected four phenomena associated with compassion in context: individual gaps and lapses in compassion, relational challenges, contextual constraints on compassion, and distributed compassion. Individual gaps and lapses in compassion involved inattention, intention vs. perception, personal capacity, and personal toll. Relational challenges included receptivity, fragmentation, and lack of shared understanding. Contextual constraints consisted of situational pressures, the clinical environment, gaps in education, and organizational culture. The distribution of compassion within teams and how teams adapt their behaviors in response to perceived needs for greater compassion modulated these challenges.


The study illustrates the many ways in which compassion can be shaped by context and highlights the role of teamwork in identifying gaps and lapses in compassion and responding in a way that supports patients, families, and colleagues.


doctor-patient relationships patient-centered care medical culture critical care, palliative care 


Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical approval was obtained from the University of Calgary Conjoint Health Research Ethics Board.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they do not have a conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

11606_2019_5467_MOESM1_ESM.docx (16 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 16 kb)


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Amanda L. Roze des Ordons
    • 1
    • 2
    Email author
  • Lori MacIsaac
    • 2
  • Jacqueline Hui
    • 1
    • 2
  • Joanna Everson
    • 2
  • Rachel H. Ellaway
    • 1
  1. 1.Cumming School of Medicine University of CalgaryCalgaryCanada
  2. 2.Alberta Health ServicesCalgaryCanada

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