Could Mindfulness Help Doctors Avoid Burnout?

Mindfulness is a simple form of meditation that allows people to really live in the moment, to be aware and attentive during everyday activities. Studies suggest that this can help physicians provide better care for their patients and help them to avoid burnout.

According to a paper published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, that focused on medical students, extreme stress can affect, “professional effectiveness by diminishing the humanistic qualities fundamental to optimal patient care.” The researchers, led by Dr. Shauna Shapiro, concluded, “that mindfulness can be thought of as ‘preventive medicine’ for future doctors, helping them cultivate a way of being that may foster healing and growth in their own lives as well as skills to effectively help others heal and grow in the future.”

Doctors work in very high stress environments and can have little time between patients to reset their focus. This can greatly affect how they interact with patients, as well as their levels of self-care.

Improving Patient Care

The 2016 Medscape Physician Compensation Report found that 13-16 minutes is the most common amount of time physicians spend with each of their patients. If a physician’s mind is clouded by issues that don’t involve their patient, it can be difficult for them to listen attentively.

In 2013, Dr. Pauline Chen wrote an article for the New York Times, “Easing Doctor Burnout with Mindfulness,” about her personal experience with mindfulness.

“I had walked into the exam room to listen to this patient; but my mind was a few steps behind, as I struggled with thoughts about the colleague who’d just snapped at me over the phone because she was in no mood to get another new consult, my mounting piles of unfinished paperwork, and the young patient with widespread cancer whom I’d seen earlier in the day,” she writes, explaining her crowded thoughts. “Thoughts about my new patient jumbled in the mix, too, but they came into focus only after I had pushed away the fears that I might have neglected to order a key test on my last patient, that I’d forgotten to call another patient and that I was already running behind schedule.”

After noticing her thought patterns, Dr. Chen came across two studies from the Annals of Family Medicine that touched on the benefits of mindfulness.

The first, A Multicenter Study of Physician Mindfulness and Health Care Quality, examined how the mindfulness of a physician can affect the quality of care they provided to their patients.  Researchers observed 45 clinicians who were working with HIV infected patients. Each clinician completed a Mindful Attention Awareness Scale. While they were interacting with patients, the researchers recorded the encounter to measure the patient-clinician communication quality.

The study found that clinicians who felt they were more mindful had more “patient-centered” communication and their patients left more satisfied with their care.

Improving Self-Care

The second study that Dr. Chen came across was “Abbreviated Mindfulness Intervention for Job Satisfaction, Quality of Life, and Compassion in Primary Care Clinicians: A Pilot Study.” Researchers in this study looked into whether mindfulness could help physicians increase job satisfaction, quality of life, and compassion. They studied 30 different primary care physicians, who took a test to measure their anxiety, stress, resilience, compassion, and burnout level.

They then took a course on mindfulness. The doctors were tested on day one, at eight weeks, and then at nine months post-intervention. All of them were shown to have improved scores.

Researchers concluded that, “participating in an abbreviated mindfulness training course adapted for primary care clinicians was associated with reductions in indicators of job burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress. Modified mindfulness training may be a time-efficient tool to help support clinician health and well-being, which may have implications for patient care.”

Physician burnout can be a huge issue. The study states that up to 60% of physicians reported experiencing burnout during their careers. With the high-stress atmosphere and long hours that many doctors work, this does not come as a surprise.

Practice What You Preach

Dr. Manoj Jain, like Dr. Chen, examined his experience with mindfulness in an article published by the Washington Post. He practices mindfulness himself and also recommends it to his patients.

“Today, our lives are filled with stressors, from work, home, financial pressures and digital devices,” he writes. “Mindfulness is a low-cost, medication-free way to manage and reduce the ill effects of stress. I have grown less shy in recommending meditation — along with exercise and nutrition — for physical and mental wellness to my patients.”

Dr. Jain wasn’t always so confident in recommending mindfulness or meditation to his patients, fearing that they “may see it as a fringe religious or spiritual practice…lacking substance or scientific grounding.”

However, he now cites many examples of the growing popularity of the practice. He writes about medical schools integrating it into their curriculums and that the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence now recommends mindfulness for patients who have experienced depression.

With little downside, why not give mindfulness a try?

“I have taken my own advice,” explains Dr. Jain. “I am still at it: sitting on the deck, focusing on my breath, watching my thoughts, clearing my mind amid the shrill end-of-summer calls of the cicadas. I think I have noticed an effect — I feel a deeper sense of acceptance in my life, without losing a passion or resolve to change things for the better.”

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