The notion of scientific research into the biology of compassion may sound a bit New-Agey, or perhaps more naturally belonging in the wheelhouse of social scientists and theologians than neuroscientists. But empathy is as much a part of human evolution—and brain function—as language and complex cooperative behavior. And you don’t have to look beyond any day’s newspaper to see how destructively modern life collides with our innate capacity for compassion.

Compassion is also a central element of health care, and the medical profession is one area where empathy’s malfunctions are particularly relevant, according to philanthropist T. Denny Sanford, a South Dakota banking and credit billionaire who has given millions for health research at the University of California San Diego, in such areas as regenerative medicine and stem cells. He has also donated millions for children’s hospitals and clinics in South Dakota, Minnesota, and Florida, and made a $30 million gift to the San Diego Zoo, the largest in the zoo’s history.

Now, with a huge financial donation, Sanford is helping empower the University of California San Diego to become a global center for the study of empathy.

Sanford is a former credit and banking billionaire who has said his interest in empathy and compassion is fueled in part by the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Now in his 80s, Sanford has said he plans to give away all his money in his lifetime and as Inside Philanthropy has noted, he’s been working hard to fulfill that vow of sunset philanthropy.

Sanford’s $100 million gift funded the recent launch of the Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at UCSD. It enables the university to join a growing field of research into the health and social issues connected to this core human function­—particularly within the medical profession. The institute will advance work along two lines: research, and training for medical students and health professionals.

Physician Burnout: Very Real, Very Serious.

We don’t always feel so good when we go to the doctor. That’s hardly surprising. Maybe we’re sick, or we’re worried what our health insurance will cover. Or maybe it’s a routine physical but we’re tense because we’re not a kid anymore and the doctor, who appears to be in an enormous hurry, is telling us that our weight and blood pressure are too high and some other number is too low, and we better keep an eye on some other thing.  

But it turns out that a surprising number of our doctors don’t feel so great, either. Physician burnout—the term for a physical and mental health diagnosis caused by the stresses endemic to work in health care—is far more common and far more serious than you might think. Symptoms include chronic headaches, malaise, clinical depression and worse. In fact, doctors have the highest suicide rate of any profession in the country, about double the rate in the general population, according to the American Psychiatry Association. And if doctors are suffering this much, it’s not good for patients, either.

"In medicine we generally think of ourselves as compassionate—it’s our job," said Bill Mobley, Ph.D., M.D., who is interim director of the new empathy institute, and associate dean of neuroscience initiatives at UCSD. "But sometimes doctors don’t know how to help their patients, or because of the healthcare system don’t have the resources, and they might blame themselves for not doing all they can, or become depressed."

According to a survey cited by UCSD, 44 percent of physicians reported experiencing burnout, with some experiencing depression and other symptoms. These and similar stresses weigh heavily on medical students, as well, but medical school is also a time when instruction can teach physicians how to maintain compassion and maintain their emotional and physical balance despite the stressful nature of the work, including compounding difficulties from sources such as the nation’s problematic health care and health insurance system.

Searching for “Solid Answers”

And while there already exists some training and psychological approaches to strengthen compassion and help doctors deal with the stress of their work, much is still unknown about the biological processes beneath those feelings.

"There is a neurological basis for empathy just as there is for sensation and vision and other functions," said Mobley. "It’s not New-Age, but it is new science that really needs to be rigorously studied to be understood." MRI brain scans and other imaging techniques will be used, as in other fields of biology and health.

As more empirical evidence is developed, Mobley said, the empathy institute will pursue the other half of its mission: to develop training to help doctors avoid burnout, or a breakdown in compassion, and perform better as healthcare providers. Already, research has shown that empathy can be improved through training, and better knowledge may lead to prevention or treatment for physician burn-out.

“When you get an institutional gift of this scale, you finally have the resources necessary to make a contribution to the research,” said Mobley. “But it also means we have to deliver. We aim to deliver some solid answers within the next five years. We all need to recognize the importance of empathy and compassion on our daily lives, but we’re seeing it’s a particular challenge for people working in healthcare.”


Share with cohorts