Rebecca Elia's Blog

All about Feminine Health, Healing, and Greece

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Will Mindfulness Meditation Cure our Healthcare System?

On October 15th, The New York Times posted an article written by Dr. Pauline Chen that discussed the benefits of teaching mindfulness meditation to physicians. In a quest to help alleviate physician burn-out (along with depression and suicide!) and increase meaningfulness at work through improving the physician-patient relationship, mindfulness meditation was found to be beneficial. Why then did this article make me so angry? As I read it, my breathing became labored, my heart started to race, and my cheeks became red. By the time I had finished, I, myself, needed to practice my mindfulness!

I have long observed the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, both personally and professionally. Any practice that brings us into the present moment, that allows us to fully experience the present and removes our thoughts from past and future, has incredible healing effects. Many years after I first practiced mindfulness, I was working at a major HMO. Our typical work day had become increasingly hectic, just as was described in Dr. Chen’s article. Advances in information technology were, in many ways, a godsend, but, in other ways, a contributor to our living hell on earth. We physicians, by nature, are excellent multitaskers. It’s as if we represent a fast-forward version of survival of the fittest. If you can’t multitask, then you have no place in medicine. The increased use of electronic charting played into this skill. If we hadn’t been so good at multitasking, the technological advances would never have made a significant difference.

One of these so-called advantages allowed us to perform most functions from one computer screen. We could chart the patient’s visit, order lab tests, order radiological tests, make future appointments, conduct billing, answer emails, converse with colleagues and contact patients—all on one screen and, quite often, simultaneously. This all seems great, right? Think again. Most systems, whether one is in a HMO, group practice or private practice, do not allow for the extra time required to conduct all of these functions. Let’s face it—there’s only so much one can do in an allotted amount of linear time. So we had two choices. Work longer hours (show up earlier, work through the lunch hour, fall behind in seeing patients, leave later) or cut out face-to-face patient time.

For most of us women, this was a no-brainer. Almost all of us chose to work longer hours, because we weren’t willing to sacrifice time with our patients. I haven’t run across a single physician yet who chose the practice of medicine in order to enter data into a computer. But, regardless, our patients pay the price, and we pay the price. Our patients get less and less face-to-face time. Their visits are abbreviated. Almost worse, we as physicians suffer—not just from inevitable burn-out, but from loss of job satisfaction. Mindfulness meditation is not only a useful tool; it’s become a necessary way of life. But no amount of mindfulness meditation can make up for an ailing abbreviated healthcare system.

Some of you may be wondering why I am writing this on a blog about feminine health and balance. Others of you have already identified the common denominator. Most of the systems in which we currently find ourselves (healthcare, law, higher education, marketing, etc) are using information technology advances in this very same way—as a fast-forward, as a way to squeeze more and more out of each individual. Everyone is moving so fast that the merry-go-round is no longer merry and is, in many cases, spinning out of control. We need to recognize this first before we can decide what to do about it. For those of you who can’t heal your present situation with mindfulness, you may need to step off your merry-go-round.

Take a few moments to assess your own merry-go-round. Is it out of control? Do you really need to be on it? What are your choices? Are there internal steps you can take to make it manageable? In other words, by changing you—your beliefs, your responses/reactions/attitudes, by acquiring certain skills, such as cognitive behavior techniques or mindfulness meditation, will this be adequate? Or is it time to step off?


  1. What a worm, insightsful, readable and thoughtful post as well as a good reminder to all of us. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences!

    Btw: Since you like Greece: I was in Athens last week and for a Norwegian, it was a great experience. You might like to read my post about it on my blog.

  2. Thanks for your comment Renny! Just enjoyed reading your post about Athens. If you enjoy Greece, you might be interested in my website: I'm also starting up a new page "It's All Greece to You" for those interested in posting their own interesting Greek travel stories. Let me know if you're interested.

  3. I had a similar response. I very much appreciate mindfulness meditation personally and professionally (I'm a psychologist in private practice). I am grateful that the people I see for my healthcare are also like-minded -- and, more than coincidentally, neither they nor I participate in managed (mangled) care.

    Maybe if we can cultivate a critical mass of more mindful practitioners, they will bring about the necessary change -- perhaps they will refuse to drive themselves and their patients into the equivalent of fast-food medicine?

  4. Thank you, Marsha, for your comment.

    I agree that a critical mass of more mindful practitioners is necessary. I have observed, however, that most would not enter into (or stay in) a managed-care situation to begin with. (I hope, readers, that you don't take this to mean that there are no mindful practitioners in managed care, because there are, indeed, many!)

    Additionally, after being a part of managed care for many years, I have concluded that it is nearly impossible to change ailing systems from the inside. I can only conclude that, as with anything else that is structurally broken, we often have no choice but to rebuild from the ground up.

  5. Excellent post. I had to step (OK, leap) off the merry-go-round due to back surgery. And I've had (and will have) to do a lot of thinking about my life choices.

  6. Thank you Bella.
    You bring up a very important point--that in our society we often must become ill, experience an accident or some other life-changing situation, in order to step off the merry-go-round. These, in fact, are the only societally-acceptable ways. It's great that you're using this time to reassess your life choices. I know several people who have changed their lives for the better after severe immobilization secondary to back problems. I wish you the best!