Clinicians practicing meditation techniques are reporting less stress, and more medical institutions are taking note.
Since age 11, Sharmila Dissanaike, MD, has practiced a form of meditation called “mindfulness.” A teacher in her native Sri Lanka suggested it. Decades later, she’s sharing her holistic experience with other physicians.
“The feedback has been positive so far,” says Dissanaike, the Peter C. Canizaro chair and professor in the department of surgery at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock.
“Many participants tell me that they see a benefit in their ability to handle difficult situations at work. They also report learning to enjoy the quiet moments in life that are often overlooked and are a source of strength and energy for us all.”
Dissanaike plans to speak about mindfulness in a holistic wellness session at the American College of Surgeons’ Clinical Congress 2017 in October. “Mindfulness is such a popular concept right now that many leaders in medicine and other disciplines are aware of it and the potential benefits,” she says.
Mounting evidence indicates that mindfulness meditation can help relieve the stress and burnout that many physicians suffer due to demanding schedules and personal obligations. An increasing number of medical institutions and health systems are recognizing that mindful practice interventions can enhance physicians’ well-being and their ability to empathize with patients.
“There’s acknowledgement that physician burnout, depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels,” says Melinda Ring, MD, FACP, executive director of Northwestern University’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago.
While mindfulness can boost clinicians’ resilience and reduce errors, carving out moments to meditate proves difficult for many clinicians.
“It’s a challenge,” Ring says of their reluctance to sign up for her class, Mind-Body Approaches for Resiliency and Stress Management. “We’ve offered it to nurses at Northwestern and different departments. Scheduling is always an issue, but there is no question that the people who find the time for it do benefit.”
A few physicians have availed themselves of mindfulness-based stress reduction at Valley Health System’s Center for Integrative Medicine in Ridgewood, N.J., where Jodie Katz, MD, has taught since 2006. Her physician leadership in this realm has helped attendees make decisions with greater clarity and calmness.
“There’s value in reflecting but without immediately judging,” says Katz, the center’s medical director. She explained that “meditation is used to cultivate mindfulness, but mindfulness is the awareness that arises through paying attention in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment.”
Left to its own devices, the mind is easily distracted, wandering into the past and dwelling on memories or regrets, or zooming into the future and worrying about the unknown, stress experts say.
Daniel Lee, MD, a clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, embraces a form of meditation developed by the Kelee Foundation in which “you’re learning to do nothing.” The nonprofit focuses on solving health problems associated with the mind.
“Kelee meditation is focused on developing stillness of mind,” says Lee, a specialist in the treatment of patients with HIV/AIDS.
Lee says engaging in this practice while seated in a chair for five to 10 minutes twice daily results in “decreased chatter in the brain.” For instance, Lee says it helped him heal more easily from a breakup with a longtime romantic partner and to feel less emotionally drained after counseling sick patients.
“One of the great difficulties physicians in general have is making time for self-care,” even though their well-being is “intimately connected with quality of care,” says Michael Krasner, MD, FACP, a professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in New York.
Krasner has been teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction to patients, medical students and health care professionals since 2001, and has published studies documenting its success. About 600 physicians have participated in intensive retreats focused on cultivating attention and awareness.
“We’re burned out, so we need some way of managing stress better,” Krasner says. “And I think this approach does hold some promise.”
Susan Kreimer is a freelance journalist based in New York.