By Wendy Sarubbi | May 6, 2015 3:24 pm

Physicians can avoid burnout and better communicate with patients if they use mindfulness – a technique of focusing intently and without judgment on the present rather than making knee-jerk reactions, College of Medicine faculty and students learned during a May 4 workshop. The program, hosted by the college’s Family Medicine Student Interest Group and sponsored by the Florida Academy of Family Physicians, featured Dr. Ernestine Lee, a family physician at Florida Hospital.

Mindfulness is a relaxation method that has been practiced for centuries and is similar to meditation. The goal of the practice is to be present in the moment, rather than distracted by outside concerns. Physicians who are mindful focus on what the patient is saying and doing in the moment, and react with nonjudgmental acknowledgement rather than emotion. The practice has “helped me be more present with my patients, and helped me take better care of them,” Dr. Lee said. “Remaining compassionate and empathetic without crossing the line of becoming emotionally exhausted has helped me remain resilient.”

Many people practice mindfulness without knowing it, she said, using the example of playing sports and how athletes clear their minds of distractions and focus only on their physical performance. Dr. Lee gave her own example. “When I was on the soccer field, that’s the only thing that I would be focused on,” she said.

To practice the technique, faculty and students were told to clear their minds and sit completely silent for three minutes. A recording of a soothing voice told participants to focus on their breathing, inhaling relief and relaxation, and exhaling negativity. After the exercise, students noted that they already felt calmer and less stressed. “Every time I do that exercise with someone, the room visibly changes,” Dr. Lee observed.

Mindfullness is not only good for physicians, it may have health benefits for patients. Studies show that mindfulness can be an effective treatment for conditions including anxiety,  depression,  high blood pressure and eating disorders. For that reason, Associate Professor Dr. Magdalena Pasarica, the Family Medicine group adviser, said students are asking more about the practice.  “Some of them asked me about mindfulness, and how they can use it to talk to patients who have been diagnosed with cancer, or maybe just lost a loved one,” said Dr. Pasarica, who reached out to her friend and colleague, Dr. Lee, because of her background in teaching the topic.  “These techniques are actually used in clinics for physician well-being, so this is a good thing for our students in the future also.”

First-year medical student Aleks Kovalskiy said the topic is also relevant to students dealing with the pressures of medical school. “We tend to lose ourselves in our studies,” he said. “I find myself thinking about what I just studied or what I need to study, even when I’m trying to go to sleep. I think this is a very good technique that has science behind it.”

Dr. Lee says such stresses continue for practicing physicians, and can lead to burnout. She said she uses mindfulness to approach patient problems with more thoughtful, rather than knee-jerk reactions. “As doctors, we are called upon to just fix the situation, but sometimes it’s important to just sit back and not react, even if it’s just for a very brief amount of time,” she said.

Dr. Lee says mindfulness techniques are not meant to replace the advances of modern medicine, but can be a complementary approach, especially in stressful situations.  As someone who uses the method frequently, she said she wanted to pass mindfulness along to the next generation of doctors. “I want to plant a seed for them so they know this a tool that they can use in their own life, and in the care of their patients,” she said.

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