October 28, 2011
There has been a growing awareness among doctors that being mindful, or fully present and attentive to the moment, not only improves the way they engage with patients but also mitigates the stresses of clinical practice.
Mounting paperwork demands and other time and productivity pressures can lead to physician burnout, which affects as many as one in three doctors, recent studies have shown. The loss of enthusiasm and engagement that results can lead to increased errors, decreased empathy and compassion toward patients and poor professionalism. Other problems include physician substance abuse, abandonment of clinical practice and even suicide.
Despite the pervasiveness of burnout, few interventions have been shown to be effective. But two years ago, University of Rochester researchers studied the effects of a yearlong course for practicing primary care physicians in mindful communication. Their findings, published in The Journal of the American Medical Association, showed that doctors who took part in the course became more present, attentive and focused on the moment and less emotionally exhausted over time. Moreover, the doctors’ ability to empathize with patients and understand how patients’ family and work life or social situation could influence their illness increased and persisted even after the course had ended.
“Mindful communication is one way for practitioners to feel more ‘in the game’ and to find meaning in their practice,” said Dr. Michael S. Krasner, an associate professor of clinical medicine at Rochester and one of the study authors. He, along with his co-author Dr. Ronald Epstein, a professor of family medicine, psychiatry and oncology at Rochester, developed the course in mindfulness.