Doctors: Use Your Mind, But Shut It Off Sometimes With Patients

Mindfulness.   The concept has been kicked around for some time.  You know, closing your eyes (or not) and just letting thoughts come in and out of your mind without following them, just being there, in the moment.  It's kind of like meditation but that word scares a lot of people away, so mindfulness was coined.

You'd certainly want your doctor to do a little of this, before surgery, wouldn't you?  Well, now, Pauline Chen, herself a doctor, is writing at her New York Times blog that practicing it may just may help physicians avoid stress and burnout.

"Research over the last few years has revealed that unrelenting job pressures cause two-thirds of fully trained doctors to experience the emotional, mental and physical exhaustion characteristic of burnout," she reports. "Health care workers who are burned out are at higher risk for substance abuse, lying, cheating and even suicide. They tend to make more errors and lose their sense of empathy for others."

We've all had doctors stare at us as though they're listening, during an exam, but clearly their head is somewhere else. And who can blame them, with the amount of pressure they must now feel at having their outcomes measured, with Obamacare, and volumes of patients they must see in order to keep the lights on.

Chen notes that it's hard to treat burnout.  "But promising research points to mindfulness, the ability to be fully present and attentive in the moment, as a possible remedy. A few small studies indicate that mindfulness training courses can help doctors become more focused, more empathetic and less emotionally exhausted."

It doesn't take a brain surgeon (sorry), to figure this out, but patients were far more satisfied and open with more mindful doctors, according to Chen. And, not surprisingly, "The less mindful clinicians, on the other hand, more frequently missed opportunities to be empathic and, in the most extreme cases, failed to pay attention at all, responding, for example, to a patient’s description of waking up in the middle of the night crying in pain with a question about a flu shot."

Mindfulness does seem to make doctors more efficient. Think about it.  What if you kept your mind on exactly what you're doing at this moment (reading this), not the grocery list or the work project or the kid you have to pick up in less than a half-hour?  I must admit I've done this and it's very hard.  But the results are worth it.

One of the tips taught in some mindfulness courses is the "two feet one breath" step, which simply has physicians notice how their feet feel hitting the floor, and breathing deeply (amazing how relaxing this can be) to focus on the moment before entering an exam room, one doctor told Chen.

“Mindfulness gives doctors permission to attend to their own health and well-being,” Dr. Mary Catherine Beach, lead author of the study and an associate professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, told Chen. “But it also allows doctor to help patients by listening more, talking less, and seeing what the patients need.”



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