The foundation of medical progress is evidence. Yet, many non-harmful complementary medical therapies are incorporated into people’s daily practices with little empirical scrutiny. This has left many with the impression that holistic treatments such as massage, chiropractic medicine, yoga, and meditation are “voodoo
,”, “hippie”, or placebo.
As someone who regularly engages in several of these practices – and values the noble guardianship of empiricism – I am excited to see that research on topics such as yoga and meditation has blossomed. The research on meditation and its potential benefits for physicians is particularly exciting and timely. In this piece, I will survey the evidence for why physicians and medical students should meditate by summarizing some of the key take-aways I found from scrolling through the first hundred articles that populated PubMed when I searched “meditation and physicians”. Without further ado, here are five evidence-based ways meditation can help physicians.
- Reducing stress and burnout
The majority of research on physicians and meditation examines reducing stress and burnout. One study introduced a mindfulness-based stress reduction course to 93 healthcare providers at a university medical center. This course taught various mindfulness practices including body scan, mindful movement, walking meditation, and sitting meditation. It also featured discussion of how to integrate these tools into the workplace. In a burnout index called the Maslach Burnout Inventory, scores improved significantly in several categories, including emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, personal accomplishment, and mental wellbeing.1 In another study, 88 medical students were assigned to either 10-20 minutes of meditation per day for 30 days using the mobile app Headspace or a meditation-free control. In the meditation group, perceived stress decreased significantly (perceived stress scale) and general wellbeing increased significantly (general well-being schedule).2 Another study taught meditation to 38 primary care physicians in Spain. The experimental group displayed a reduction in subjective measures of both stress and anxiety3.
- Improve physician performance during procedures
Other studies have looked at how meditation may help physicians focus and be present during long procedures, even improving physician performance during procedures. This would be particularly useful for surgeons performing long procedures that require sustained focus and alertness4. In one study, meditation music alone improved the quality of suturing in an experimental bypass procedure5. In a mixed-methods pilot study, mindfulness meditation was used to improve the function of an interprofessional cardiopulmonary resuscitation team6.
- Improve quality of life for medical trainees
Another potential application of meditation for physicians is to improve trainee well-being. Medical training is a long, arduous process, and many trainees will suffer from issues such as stress, burnout, sleep disturbance, and rumination. Several studies look at how meditation may improve quality of life for medical trainees. One study combined 30 minutes of meditation with 30 minutes of aerobic exercise to reduce stress and rumination in medical students.7
Ruminations are repetitive, typically negative, thoughts. Students in the meditation and exercise group demonstrated a 17% decrease in ruminations, including depressive (-16%) and brooding ruminations (-24%).8
- Foster compassion and empathy
A less studied, but fascinating, use of meditation for physicians is to foster compassion and empathy. One study suggested that meditation training might reduce implicit bias by increasing physicians’ awareness of and ability to control responses to biases and reducing the likelihood of implicit biases being activated in the mind9. Another study looked at the effects of loving-kindness meditation on doctors’ empathy and communication skills.10 A different study utilized an abbreviated mindfulness intervention to improve job satisfaction, quality of life, and compassion in primary care clinicians.11
- Improve sleep
Perhaps the most practical application of meditation for physicians is to improve sleep. This is something many medical trainees and physicians struggle with due to stress, long-hours, and shift work. Since lack of sleep can have health consequences in the short and long term, improving physician and medical trainee sleep should be a priority. Meditation is a simple intervention without harmful side effects. One study used a heartfulness meditation intervention for physicians and advanced practice providers during the COVID-19 pandemic to try to improve sleep and observed a mild decrease in reported sleep issues.12 Another study saw similar results when they used heartfulness meditation to help resident physicians sleep.