The practice of medicine involves unique challenges and blessings. The nature of our work is to help our patients to navigate and alleviate their own suffering. Our days are filled with clinics and hospital rounds; surgical slates and ER shifts; house calls and nursing home visits; meetings, rounds, teaching and paperwork. Amidst this busyness we face immense demands, from others and from ourselves, to fix, to support, to care and to heal. At times we navigate these demands with clear boundaries, balance and a deep compassion for others, and for ourselves. However it is also too easy for these challenges and expectations to lead to overbusyness, unhealthy stress and to burnout.
Over 60% of nurses and physicians describe their work life as ‘highly stressful’. In a November 2003 study on physician health, 47% of all Canadian physicians were found to be in the advanced stages of burnout. This burnout is, in turn, associated with a decreased quality of care, a lack of life and work satisfaction, a decreased sense of accomplishment, and increased rates of divorce, depression, addiction, and suicide.
In witnessing others’ suffering, we face our own pain, our own dis-ease, and our own mortality. As we summon all of our skill, compassion, experience and wisdom to each patient encounter, so we as well are challenged to face our own limitations and our own impotence.
And yet there is so much beauty as well. Our work offers daily glimpses into the heart of humanity — the courage, selflessness, vulnerability, compassion and sheer heroism our patients and their caregivers wield as they confront the challenges of dis-ease. We witness our own strength and caring, and that of our colleagues as we make every effort to help and to heal
Mindfulness in medicine invites us to arrive, moment by moment, in the midst of all of this. Can we learn — as physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists — to be awake to the blessings and challenges of the work we do? Can we accept and embrace our wisdom and skill as well as our imperfections and limitations? When we witness suffering — that of others as well as that of ourselves — with friendly presence and compassion, then we truly allow healing to take place.
Mindfulness is a skill. Like every other skill, it is learned through intention and practice. As we practice concentration, compassion, and acceptance so we are able to use these skills in real ways in our lives. Formal practice of mindfulness meditation foster these skills on the cushion or chair so that we are able to bring them into our daily lives. As we practice mindfulness amidst the demands and busyness of our personal and professional lives, so we nurture a sense of wellness, balance, and satisfaction.
A 2009 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found that after 15 months of training in mindfulness primary care physicians had:
• decreased perceived stress,
• decreased burnout rates,
• improved stress coping
• Improved emotional stability,
• increased empathy
• Increased sense of wellbeing
A 2007 randomized controlled trial found that mental health providers who had had mindfulness training had improved mental health treatment outcomes in their patients.
There are several resources on this site and elsewhere that allow health care providers to learn and adopt these powerful tools to apply in their personal and professional lives. As we invite mindfulness into medicine so we clear the way for a future in health care that will serve the needs of both patient and healer.