As many as 60 percent of practicing physicians report feeling burnt out—emotionally exhausted, unaccomplished. This isn’t just bad news for doctors: Physician burnout decreases the quality of their care, makes medical errors more likely, and increases a patient’s chance of being treated like an object.
A recent study offers some hope, though, suggesting that the practice of mindfulness can help rejuvenate doctors in as little as eight weeks.
In the study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers tested physicians before and after an eight-week training in mindfulness exercises intended to foster moment-by-moment awareness of feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. In the training, 70 physicians practiced mindfulness in exercises such as “body scans,” where they made slow and detailed mental observations of their body parts, and through meditations that involved stepping back and paying attention to their thoughts.
The researchers found that after the training, the doctors experienced less burnout, more emotional stability, greater feelings of empathy for their patients and a heightened ability to take their perspective, and better attitudes towards patient care. These results held 15 months after the training had ended, when the researchers stopped tracking their participants.
So how does mindfulness help doctors? The study’s lead author, Michael Krasner, an associate professor of clinical medicine at the University of Rochester, says that because medical work is so demanding, physicians frequently feel overburdened and are troubled by any imperfections in their work, causing them a high amount of stress. He believes mindfulness might help foster reflection and self-awareness in doctors, so that they’re able to handle stress in “a more responsive mode” rather than simply reacting to it negatively. This enhanced perspective helps them break down a stressful situation, become more aware of what is bothering them, and determine how they can solve it.
Krasner and his co-authors note in their study that while their results are encouraging, more research needs to be done to confirm the benefits they observed. For now, though, Krasner says the study demonstrates the need for “self-care“ among doctors, “not only to allow practitioners to continue the highly stressful and challenging work of practicing medicine, but also to improve their relational capacity—engaging patients more completely—and, as a result, improving the quality of patient care.”