The Doctors Next Door



A study about physician burnout found that mindfulness meditation can be a helpful remedy. This University of Rochester study, published in the Sept. 23/30 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that as many as 60 percent of practicing physicians describe symptoms of burnout. The study defined such symptoms as "emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, treating persons as objects, and low sense of accomplishment."


Do you want to see a doctor like that?

Perhaps you already have.  

So the researchers went on to conduct some training courses for physicians with burnout and found that the mindfulness meditation course was most beneficial.  Now I confess, I've tried to meditate and have discovered that I just can't.  I'm sure there are folks out there that could train me into believing otherwise but in my brief personal attempts to incorporate meditation into my days, I have failed.  I imagine this to be pathognomonic for a severe meditation deficiency.


I've read Jon Kabat-Zinn and truly loved his work--he's so right about living in the moment--it's all we really have!  In his book, Arriving At Your Own Door, Kabat-Zinn offers this tremendous insight:


"In Asian languages the word for mind and the word for heart are the same word. So when we hear the word 'mindfulness', we have to inwardly also hear heartfulness..."


And I admit that I am one of those people who has the "to-do" list that tick-tocks continuously in the background of my days so prominently that I know I have


sometimes missed that most important focus of my attention sitting right there in front of me.  I hope that I don't do this in the examining room with a patient. I'm not one of those burned out physicians. For the most part, I really love my time with my patients and recognize it to be fleeting and rich.  I can also stay really focused when I'm having breakfast with my middle son.  He's a talker at that time of day and it's no secret that when our teenagers talk to us, we had better listen. 


But what about when I don't feel the pressure to be fully present? Those times when I think I can relax my attention a little, i.e. pick up my cell phone while I'm driving, study some birds across the street while I go for a stroll...Well it just so happens I have a story about that. 


Dr. Brenda shared her story about a black eye recently. Now I'll share mine.


I was attending a meeting of leaders within the American Academy of Family Physicians and I knew I'd be meeting a number of people for the first time.  It was in a sunny part of the country so I thought I'd go out for a walk to soak up some Vitamin D. 


Strolling along the sidewalk, I became interested in a flock of birds clustered together on a patch of grass across the street.  They looked sort of like ducks and sort of like pheasants and I was really curious about what they were.


Dodo bird.jpg

I couldn't take my eyes off these interesting birds and suddenly something hit me full on, smashing my eyeglasses and cutting my face.


That thing that hit me was a lamp post.  I could tell that I was injured and bleeding but being alone, couldn't tell how badly

Lamp post.jpg

I started walking back in the direction of the hotel and found a little grocery that was open so I walked in cautiously, knowing I might horrify whoever was to greet me.  Sure enough, the woman behind the counter gasped--"oh my goodness, what happened, let me get you some bandages!"


It must be pretty bad...I thought to myself.


Once I was able to clean up and otherwise put myself back together I could see that the cuts were relatively small and the bleeding stopped quickly but that I was developing swelling and bruising around my left eye.  I next looked forward to attending this function, meeting all those new people, not being able to see the projected slides sans eyeglasses and explaining my black eye.  And how dare that lamp post jump out at me like that? 


I considered my options but finally decided that the only thing that made sense was to tell the truth, revealing myself to be one who has the capacity to live up to the ubiquitous blonde joke, now with very visible demonstration of that fact.  It turned out to be a good icebreaker during the round-table introductions and several of those in attendance tell me still, years later, that every time they see me, they can't help but giggle, thinking of the silly episode of the black eye. It's always refreshing to see a very high-brow educated research-type doctor release a giggle.



It went over so well that I continued to leverage this story when the next week I was giving a talk to staff at Rush-Copley Hospital about my lack of "mindfulness".  The talk was about how to decrease medical errors.  My black eye hurt only me. (The lamp post was no worse for the wear. That was just a picture of what I wanted to have happened to the lamp post.) But lack of mindfulness in our daily encounters can cause great harm under certain circumstances. 


Lack of mindfulness is hazardous to our health.  It's a factor in car crashes and other accidents, hurt relationships, weight gain, wasted time, substance abuse, financial problems, medical errors, judgement name it...if it's a negative aspect of our life experiences, then some level of mindlessness is likely to be involved. Perhaps mindfulness meditation isn't just a good solution for burned out doctors...


Alright, already, I'll try it again.  I'll make an attempt to meditate. It's certainly better than it's linguistic cousin "medicate".




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