Physicians reconnect with themselves to lower stress

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Physicians reconnect with themselves to lower stress

Mindfulness training offered to doctors and their families four times a year at UW Medicine
Bobbi Nodell

Academic medical centers are known as magnets for suffering, not only for patients but for physicians and healthcare workers working in that world every day. These are the words of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass., who developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction course for patients with chronic problems. Now that training is being used in all sectors of society, including to reduce physician burnout.

At UW Medicine, mindfulness training is open to faculty physicians, residents, fellows and their families four times a year. The five-week course, co-sponsored by UW’s Graduate Medical Education and faculty wellness programs in the School of Medicine, is offered through the group Mindfulness Northwest.

Halfway through the latest series, the students debriefed on what was working for them. They talked about slowing down and being present -- running without their headphones, driving to work without NPR and feeling the water when they are washing dishes.

One of the most popular tools was something called “Two feet and a breath.” This practice helps doctors  return to mindfulness before entering an exam room or operating room to interact with a patient. It calls for pausing, feeling your two feet on the floor, and taking one breath while noticing the inhale and exhale.

“I find myself using two feet and a breath every time I go into a surgery,” said one of the students. “This is really working for me.”

Instructor Tim Burnett, a long-time meditator and executive director of Mindfulness Northwest, was trained at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He has conducted mindfulness programs at a couple other medical centers and understands physicians well.
“Doctors have been cranking since they were 10. They need to connect with the person underneath all these skills,” he said.

“In this course, they can slow down in a protective environment.”

The course got started in the winter of 2011 when a physician colleague of Burnett’s contacted Amity Neumeister, UW assistant dean of graduate medical education.  A course was piloted with David Kearney, UW professor of medicine, Division of Gastroenterology, who was doing research on mindfulness for veterans who suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. The series teaches people to be centered in the present and to focus on their senses.  

This allows them to be more aware of thoughts and feelings, reactions and responses.

Matthew Altman, UW assistant professor in Allergy and Infectious Diseases, took the introductory series in January and has continued to attend ongoing Mindfulness Northwest classes. He came from Harvard Medical School and has joined the UW as a first year faculty member trying to both expand a new immunology clinic and build funding for research in rare immunological diseases.

“The classes have helped me keep balanced through some major life transitions," he said. "They help me practice calmness and compassion each day towards myself and those around me. I will definitely take the series again.”

He uses the body scan meditation regularly to settle his mind and finds the kindness and compassion mediations help him stay empathetic and avoid resistance.

For Claudia Finkelstein, clinical associate professor of medicine (genera internal medicine), these efforts to address stress and cultivate compassion are sorely needed in the medical profession. As a mentor, she said she has witnessed a great degree of pain and anguish in students and residents, who are exposed daily to human suffering, sleep deprivation and tremendous expectations.

Nine years ago, she helped create a mind-body medicine elective at UW for interdisciplinary students. The course, UCONJ531, teaches a selection of mind-body techniques, mindfulness among them. She is now the director of faculty wellness programs at the UW School of Medicine.

“For every physician who is saner and pays more attention to patients, hundreds of lives are improved,” she said.

For more on wellness progams at UW, see the GME Wellness site.