Being a doctor is really challenging. Long shifts, high stress and huge pressures (decisions they make ARE a matter of life and death) can affect their ability to be present and compassionate. This can upset patient care.

In spite of the horrific headlines earlier this year about the Mid Staffordshire Hospital scandal (which led to up to 1200 unnecessary deaths between 2005 and 2009), most medical professionals go into such work because they DO care deeply about others.

While doctors need to have empathy and compassion for their patients, this is negatively impacted by the demands of their medical educations. The stress of education often undermines the ability to be present. Researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (Bond AR, Mason HF, Lemaster CM, Shaw SE, Mullin CS, Holick EA and Saper RB) wanted to know if mind-body practices, as integrated into the Embodied Health Elective created by Heather Mason, could improve the students’ psychological well-being (including empathy and compassion).

“I started this program because I wanted to change the way medicine was being practiced, where doctors were more aware of mind-body practices,” says Mason. “I know this is only a tiny drop in an a huge ocean, but it was a start. I was really touched when I read the students’ reflective essays. Reading them was heart-warming and wonderful. By and large, the students were extremely positive. It almost brought a tear to my eye and I felt that something extraordinary was happening, much more than research could adequately portray. Still, I am very excited about our findings.”

“Research shows that levels of empathy decrease with each year of medical school and there’s a direct correlation between doctors’ empathy and patients’ outcomes. Improving medical student empathy is, therefore, an important focus of medical schools. Statistically significant changes in self-compassion and self-regulation were seen.”

To remain unbiased, Heather was not directly involved in the research at the beginning. Later she helped with qualitative analysis and editing the paper. Principal investigator, Allison Bond designed the study, carried it out, and wrote the paper.

“During the course, I really wanted to know how the students were doing but we didn’t see the results until the end. On the last day, we had a group discussion and I was blown away by how gracious they were and how impacted they had been by it.”

“I started my spiritual journey at 23 and have spent a lot of time with spiritual people. To be able to teach a group of people who hadn’t embarked on that, to give them a taste, that little flavor, was wonderful. It reminded me how significant that first journey into the mind really is. Since medical students are bright, they were very eloquent and insightful, which painted a lovely picture for me of how they experienced the course.”

Moving forward, Heather would love to see a longitudinal study where an embodied health group and control group were compared for stress and empathy and compassion for patients at the beginning and, 20 years down the line.

“I want to know if what we do can impact that many lives. If not, I want to know what we can do to make that possible. If I could tell others one thing it would be, don’t underestimate the capacity for one person to make a change. Yoga teachers might be intimidated to approach an institution but you can do it.”

Click here to read more about Embodied Health: The Effects of a Mind-Body Course for Medical Students.

Image courtesy of Ambro / freedigitalphotos.net

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