photo suggesting a doctor meditating
Doctors could improve their levels of compassion - and fight burnout - if they learned to meditate

Physician heal thyself – with meditation

4 November, 2013

Natural Health News — Doctors commonly tell patients that stress can be harmful to their health. Yet when it comes to reducing their own stress levels, physicians don’t always heed their own advice.

Part of the problem, according to researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is that medical schools don’t include meditation and stress-reduction training in their curriculum. However, for the past three years all third-year students at this medical centre have been provided guided relaxation and mindfulness meditation training known as Applied Relaxation and Applied Mindfulness (ARAM).

The intervention is described in the upcoming edition of the journal Annals of Behavioral Science and Medical Education.

Improved doctor/patient relationships

Studies estimate that 20-60% of physicians experience burnout at some time during their careers. This level of distress and strain can have a significant influence on the quality of care that doctors provide. It can also decrease empathy and compassion for patients and increase the likelihood of medical errors, says William McCann, PsyD, associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the paper.

“Research has repeatedly shown that mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques can help moderate the influence of stress,” McCann said. “In every stress-management program either mindfulness or relaxation is always included to decrease both the mental and physical wear and tear caused by stress.”

The goal of the training is threefold: to help familiarise future doctors with techniques recommended in many medical treatment plans for patients; to reduce stress and prevent professional burnout; and to enhance performance by improving working memory and empathy and by moderating performance anxiety.

The ARAM training was composed of three sessions integrated into the third-year family medicine clerkship. According to McCann, 90% of the students found the class beneficial.

“The practice of medicine is a stressful challenge even for our best and brightest students,” McCann said. “The rate of burnout among doctors is sobering and every medical school needs to include stress-management training in their curriculums.”

A buffer against stress

While Wake Forest Baptist is one of only a few medical schools in the United States to include mindfulness or relaxation training in its curriculum, this is not the first time the evidence has shown that doctors can benefit from such interventions.

For instance, a Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) study showed how a mind-body class elective for medical students helped increase their self-compassion and ability to manage thoughts and tasks more effectively. The study, published in Medical Education Online, also discussed how a course like this could help medical students better manage stress and feel more empowered to use mind-body skills with their patients. Other evidence shows how meditation can help improve relationships.

Studies at other universities also focused on how mindfulness meditation can help others in stressful situations. Teacher well-being, efficacy, burnout-related stress, time-related stress and mindfulness significantly improve when teachers participated in the CARE (Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education) for Teachers program, according to Penn State researchers.

Other studies suggest that mindfulness can provide a buffer against college stress for students, as well as improving brain function. Indeed a recent study suggested students could benefit from meditating before important tests.

Meditation’s effects aren’t just physical they have also been shown to help reduce chronic inflammation – a risk factor for diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, heart disease, diabetes and more. It’s also been shown to slow the growth of prostate cancer cells.