Medical Students Learn Mindfulness Training
One of the most valuable lessons Josh Reiher learned while pursuing his medical degree didn’t take place in a traditional classroom setting or while on a clinical rotation.
It happened during a medical trip to India between his first and second years in the MD Program at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.
He learned from Western and Eastern physicians and was exposed to the culture of the Tibetan Buddhist refugees he helped care for. He was impressed by their outlook on life and intrigued by their awareness of the connection between mind and body on health.
That trip sparked Reiher’s interest in mindfulness, a form of meditation in which one’s attention is focused on a direct experience. When he returned to Madison, he read books by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who established the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program used by health care organizations across the country. He eventually enrolled in the eight-week course offered through the UW Health integrative medicine program.
“It changed my life,” he said.
What Reiher, now a fourth-year student, learned through mindfulness training helped him manage the stress that comes with being a medical student.
“I found that when I was in a good mental state of mind, everything else kind of worked itself out, whether it was knowledge, or recall, or caring for patients,” he said.
Then he had an idea. If mindfulness worked for him, perhaps it could benefit other medical students. So Reiher worked with Katherine Bonus, director of the UW Health mindfulness program, to set up a six-week version of the mindfulness-based stress reduction course that would begin in January.
“I thought it would be a great idea to take advantage of the great resources here,” Reiher said. “We have all these amazing physicians and faculty members at UW, and it’s a perfect opportunity for med students to take advantage of it.”
Mindfulness Benefits Students and Patients
About 20 students, mostly in their first year, took the course over January and February. They learned about the fundamentals of mindfulness, which include:
- Decreasing stress through self-awareness and developing self-regulatory skills
- Developing an awareness of the emotional landscape
- Understanding current research on mindfulness and its application to patient care
By learning from practitioners who specialize in chronic pain, addiction, substance abuse and psychotherapy, the students were exposed to a variety of ways mindfulness can be incorporated into a patient’s health management plan.
The students also learned how they can benefit from mindfulness. Recent research has found that nearly half of all physicians suffer from burnout, and there’s no question that the rigors of a medical education can be highly stressful for even the brightest students. Mindfulness training provides an option to help manage that stress, which in turn can lead to better patient care.
Bonus said the benefits to students include clarity of mind, better listening skills, greater empathy and an increased sense of connectedness.
“They become less victimized by their own activity,” she said.
Reiher believes mindfulness is the missing piece in the art of medicine.
“Being ‘present’ with patients was very enjoyable for me and made me a better student doctor,” he said. “But the problem was, those instances were few and far between just because it’s so stressful thinking about all the assignments we have to do, and your mind is just racing at 1,000 mph every day, whether you’re in the classroom or in the wards.
“So with the mindfulness training, you’re really exercising your mind to be present with people, and that leads to far better patient care in my opinion.”
Date Published: 02/14/2013