Using mindfulness to soothe physician stress

At a Rush University Medical Center continuing education course in Chicago last fall, a room of more than 80 physicians and other health professionals did something they rarely do during days packed with rushed patient encounters and consultations with colleagues — they sat together in silence for a solid 35 minutes.

In neat rows of chairs, the doctors, nurses, social workers, psychologists and other health professionals sat straight-backed with their hands on their knees and their eyes open, gazing into the middle distance. Throats were cleared, coughs pierced the stillness, and an elevated train rumbled just outside the conference room’s picture windows.

“The effort in this practice is remembering to come back — back to your posture, back to your breathing, over and over again,” said Mitchell M. Levy, MD. He led the exercise, known as mindfulness meditation, with a quiet yet commanding tone of voice.

“Whatever thought or feeling arises, just bring it here,” he said. “Let it be here in this space.”

This sort of meditative exercise is only one element of what Dr. Levy and the course participants covered during two days in October 2012, and the well-attended course is just one sign of the rising interest among physicians, medical schools and hospitals in using mindfulness practices to help alleviate doctors’ stress and reconnect them with their patients and their calling in medicine.

My latest feature article. Read the whole shebang.