Dorrie K. Fontaine to Link Quality Health Care with Empathy, Compassion for Providers


Day in and day out, nurses and physicians tend to patients who suffer from disease, illness, injury and trauma. Although they themselves may appear to be impervious to suffering, they are not.

What can be done to effectively care for the nursing and medical staff who spend much of their lives treating and caring for others? If their social and emotional well-being is tended to, will their patients also benefit?

Dorrie K. Fontaine — dean of the University of Virginia School of Nursing, Sadie Heath Cabaniss Professor of Nursing and associate chief nursing officer at UVA Health Systems — is at the forefront of a cutting-edge initiative to find and implement remedies for what ails nurses and doctors.

Moreover, many if not most of the various practices and skills that Fontaine has been advocating may well benefit those outside the health care profession.

At 3 p.m. Saturday in the Hall of Philosophy, Fontaine will talk about why “Compassion is the Key to Quality Health Care.” Hers will be the second of the 2016 Women’s Club’s Contemporary Issues Forum speaker series.

Originally from Long Island, New York, Fontaine earned her Bachelor of Science in nursing at Villanova University, her master’s in nursing at the University of Maryland, and her DNSc/Ph.D at Catholic University of America. In 2006, she completed Harvard’s program in management and leadership in education.

For years, Fontaine served as both a clinical care and an Intensive Care Unit nurse. After moving from the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to the University of Maryland in Baltimore, she worked as an ICU trauma nurse with Chautauquans Paula Mason and Kathy Sabatier. Together they ran a master’s program in critical care nursing.

“At every place I’ve worked, there have been amazing challenges,” Fontaine said. “They’re always looking for someone to lead and guide, and I just showed up.”

She went on to assume greater leadership roles at large academic centers in Washington, San Francisco and Charlottesville, Virginia and within key professional organizations, including the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses.

All the while Fontaine experienced, saw and sought to better understand an array of increasingly complex challenges affecting nursing and medical staff.

“Over four decades I have witnessed some incredible colleagues, but also sadness,” she said.

According to Fontaine, there are 400 physician suicides per year, including three young New York City doctors within the past two years.

Many physicians and nurses have been finding that their work is not as personally gratifying or fulfilling as they thought it would be. Fontaine said medicine is a strange culture. People are less friendly and tend not to look out for one another.

Crossing disciplinary, cultural and faith-based boundaries, Fontaine began exploring a range of methods for coping with and overcoming a myriad of problems inherent in providing quality health care in a rapidly changing, high pressure, digital world.

Fontaine, who is also a fellow of the American Academy of Nursing, said she will quickly highlight the chaos of current health care and then focus on solutions.

“It’s a tenuous time of transitions,” she said. “Obamacare or not, there’s burnout, too much work, electronic record keeping, and everything is computerized. Patients say there isn’t enough eye contact because the doctor is typing.”

Under Fontaine’s leadership, “Appreciative Inquiry” is being used as the basis for UVA nursing school’s modus operandi.

“It’s a method of looking at strengths and at what’s going right here. We tell stories of things we’re grateful for,” she said. “It’s the opposite of strategic planning. We’ve had an appreciative practice for at least 10 years.”

Fontaine said there’s a lot of research on gratitude and positive thinking, and many books. Looking at things positively, she said, changes your brain.

Through the School of Nursing’s Compassionate Care Initiative and UVA’s multidisciplinary Contemplative Sciences Center, much work is being done with nurses and doctors.

“We train each other together to understand each other’s roles and take care of each other,” Fontaine said. “If you look at the workforce and take care of them, you help patients.”

Under Fontaine’s direction, the nursing school is also sharing its methodology and practices far beyond its walls.

Notably, the CCI and WGBR in Boston are partnering on a Humankind special project written and produced by David Freudberg and distributed worldwide by NPR called “Resilient Nurses: How health care providers handle their stressful profession to avoid burnout and ‘compassion fatigue.’ ”

Caring for the needs of nurses is a way of reducing the nursing shortage in the U.S., which along the East Coast is big, Fontaine said.

“It’s a good time to become a nurse,” she said, in part because nursing is a profession that offers flexibility.

“We need to pay attention to kindness, mindfulness and building resilience, to keep people in their positions,” Fontaine said.

Fontaine has received several awards for paying attention to those practices, and for actively supporting diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2015, the UVA Health System honored her with its Martin Luther King, Jr. Award, and the University of Maryland recognized her with its Visionary Pioneer Award.

In her January 2014 blog for The Huffington Post, “The Architecture of Resilience,” Fontaine wrote, “Practice mindfulness and compassion and you’ll engage in resilient behaviors. Practice being patient, being kind, being in the moment; practice tuning in and connecting with others and you’ll prime and strengthen cognitive circuitry that reinforce such ways of being.”


The author Deborah Trefts

Deborah Trefts is a policy scientist with extensive United States, Canadian and additional international experience in conservation. She focuses on the resolution of ocean and freshwater-related challenges and the art and science of deciphering and developing public policy at all levels from global to local.