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Using Meditation to Reduce Stress, Prevent Burnout in Medical Professionals

Studies estimate that up to 60 percent of physicians experience burnout, which can affect the quality of patient care and increase the likelihood of medical errors.

Doctors often tell patients that stress can be harmful to their health. Yet when it comes to reducing their own stress levels, physicians sometimes don't heed their own advice.

Part of the problem, according to researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, is that medical schools don't include meditation and stress-reduction training in their curriculums.

That's not the case at Wake Forest Baptist. For the past three years, all third-year students have received guided relaxation and mindfulness meditation training known as applied relaxation and applied mindfulness, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The training is described in the fall issue of the Annals of Behavioral Science and Medical Education.

Studies estimate that 20 percent to 60 percent of physicians experience burnout at some time during their careers. The stress and strain can affect the quality of patient care and increase the likelihood of medical errors, according to William McCann, Psy.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest Baptist and lead author of the paper.

"Research has repeatedly shown that mindfulness meditation and relaxation techniques can help moderate the influence of stress," McCann said. "In every stress-management program, either mindfulness or relaxation is always included to decrease both the mental and physical wear and tear caused by stress."

Wake Forest Baptist training had three goals for its training:

  • To help familiarize future doctors with techniques recommended in many medical treatment plans for patients;
  • To reduce stress and prevent professional burnout; and
  • To enhance performance by improving working memory and empathy and by moderating performance anxiety.

The training was composed of three sessions integrated into the third-year family medicine clerkship. According to McCann, 90 percent of the students found the class beneficial.

"The practice of medicine is a stressful challenge even for our best and brightest students," McCann said. "The rate of burnout among doctors is sobering, and every medical school needs to include stress-management training in their curriculums."

Wake Forest Baptist is one of only a few medical schools in the United States to include mindfulness or relaxation training in its curriculum, McCann said.

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