12/07/2012 02:04 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2013

If We Want Kinder Nurses, We Need a Kinder Society

It doesn't happen all that often. It really doesn't happen all that often that something you've been hoping for is announced on the morning news. You could, I suppose, have sung a little song as you leapt out of bed because a bundle of cells would one day be a king or a queen. But what made my heart sing, in a way it doesn't always when I flick a switch and hear John Humphrys, was hearing the word "compassion" from the most powerful nurse in the land.

"There is poor care," said chief nursing officer Jane Cummings on the BBC's Today program yesterday. But then she didn't say what nursing leaders often say. She didn't say, for example, that most care is very good, and most nurses are very good, and that only a very small number of patients complain. She didn't say that when there are problems with bad nursing, it's because there aren't enough nurses, and so it's the fault of the government or the trust. She said that sometimes nursing care in the hospital was "very poor," and that this was a "betrayal."

It certainly felt like a betrayal to me when I woke up from my first operation for cancer nine years ago and was looked after by people who seemed to hate their job. It felt like a betrayal when I woke up from my third operation for cancer three years ago and was looked after by people who were careless and rude. And it felt like a betrayal to all the people who have written to me since I started writing and speaking about nursing. To "Deborah," for example, who spoke to me for a documentary on Radio 4 last week. She was so frightened about what the nurses would do if she complained about their cruelty, she wouldn't let me use her real name.

To all these people, and hundreds of thousands of others, it will mean a lot to hear a chief nursing officer talking about "betrayal." It will mean a lot to hear someone in the health service, and someone who's in charge of things in the health service, forgetting about budgets for a moment and talking about compassion. And not just compassion but, because people in management love alliteration, "competence," "communication," "courage," and a "commitment" to better "care."

It will mean a lot to the people who felt betrayed to hear a chief nursing officer talk about recruiting nurses for their "values" and not just their ability to pass exams. It will mean a lot to know that nurses will now be assessed for evidence of those values in their work. And it will mean a lot to hear that nursing courses will have to teach those values, though some people might be quite surprised they don't have to teach them now. But if the people who felt betrayed were listening to the program, they might have felt a stab of gloom. They might, for example, have heard John Humphrys say that you "can't train people" in things like empathy and compassion.

Well, actually, John, you can. Lots of people seem to think you can't, but even businesses know you can. John Lewis trains its staff in empathy. Anyone who wants to sell anything to anyone has to know about empathy. If people selling tights at John Lewis can be taught to imagine what it's like to want to buy some tights, then a trainee nurse can be taught to imagine what it's like to be ill. The science shows you can teach compassion. I went to a conference the other day (which I've written about here) that showed science suggests you can teach compassion. You can see scans that show the changes in the brain.

You can't, it's true, teach people who don't want to be taught. And it is, it's true, much, much better to do it when people are young. It's much better, in fact, if you teach children when they're small that the most important lesson they'll ever learn is that other people are real. Parents should teach their children. It's quite hard to believe they don't. But the evidence shows that, increasingly, they don't. The evidence shows that levels of empathy are going down.

The psychologist Sara Konrath has collated evidence from 72 studies that shows American college students are 40 percent less empathetic than students 20 years ago. When they were asked if they sometimes tried to "understand a friend better" by "imagining things from their perspective," an awful lot of them said they didn't.

It isn't hard to see why. Children who are brought up by parents who don't really want to be parents aren't going to get the love and care that will teach them how to care about someone else. Children who think "friends" are numbers you notch up online and drop when they bore you aren't going to rush round to wipe away a real friend's tears. Children who watch programs that tell you that the important thing is to be famous, or ruthless, or rich, aren't going to believe that the most important thing in life is to be kind.

But it is. The most important thing in life is to be kind. If you're a nurse, or a doctor, or a teacher, or even a journalist, you need all sorts of other skills to do your job, but if you're going to do it properly you also need to be kind. If you're going to deal with other human beings -- and we all deal with other human beings -- you have to be able to imagine what it's like to be in other people's shoes.

We need nurses to be kind. Of course we need nurses to be kind. Thank God at last the person in charge of nurses has said we need nurses to be kind. But if we want kind nurses, we need to work much, much harder to make kinder children, kinder adults, and a kinder world.