About a decade into his medical career, Dr. Jeff Horacek of Portland was facing burnout.
Horacek, an internal medicine physician, was working full time in primary care. He was exhausted — physically, mentally and emotionally — from the demands of his job and the stress of a recent divorce.
Then a colleague suggested Horacek learn some mindfulness skills. The suggestion changed Horacek’s life, both personally and professionally.
“It’s improved the quality of my relationships with my clients in the office. It’s improved the quality of the relationships with my colleagues. It’s improved the quality of the relationships with my loved ones,” Horacek said.
In addition, Horacek said, he has more empathy for people. He’s more patient and understanding of what others are experiencing. He treats others with more kindness.
• The next Mindful Medicine retreat — open to health care and integrative providers — is this weekend at the Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple in Portland.
Mindfulness helps people to become unconditionally present, maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, helping people to pay attention to their thoughts and feelings without judging them.
Horacek discovered mindfulness nine years ago. Over the years, he connected with other health professionals who use mindfulness techniques. About four years ago, Horacek and some of those other providers formed the nonprofit Mindful Medicine and created a curriculum for teaching mindfulness techniques.
Over the course of a weekend, the group taught physicians how to implement mindfulness techniques in their daily lives. In the last year, the group expanded its reach to include other providers, not just physicians.
Reduced stress, burnout
A recent study showed that the curriculum not only improved provider satisfaction but reduced stress and burnout. The study showed that people who do some form of mindful practice — such as seated meditation, mindful walking or gentle yoga — for an average of just eight minutes each day experienced benefits.
“Something as simple as spending eight minutes a day can continue to have a tremendous benefit on their personal and professional lives,” Horacek said.
Rolando Mendez, a physician assistant at PeaceHealth’s Family Medicine of Southwest Washington, attended the first retreat open to physician assistants, nurses and other health care providers. Mendez attended at the recommendation of a colleague who went to a past retreat and recognized that Mendez was on the path to burnout.
“I would say that my stress seems to be a little more manageable now,” Mendez said. “I have no more time than I did before to see my patients and take care of all of the tasks I have to do, but I find that taking some time every day to do some form of meditation has helped to make that stress more manageable.”
Mendez incorporates meditation into his day in multiple ways. For example, when he walks into an exam room, he uses the time he spends washing his hands to center himself. He doesn’t think about the next thing he needs to do but instead focuses on the act of washing his hands, Mendez said.
Mendez also tries to end each day with 10 minutes of quiet meditation at home.
“I’ve found that not only is my stress a little more manageable, but I’m finding a little bit more joy. I’m taking a little bit more joy in what I do,” Mendez said. “It really is a privilege to do what I get to do at my job.”
Stress, fatigue and burnout are well-known complaints among those caring for others, Mendez said.
Health care providers, particularly those in family medicine, have a lot of responsibility and are constantly under pressure, Mendez said. They have 20 minutes to step into a room, determine the cause of a patient’s symptoms and develop a treatment plan — and to do it all accurately, he said.
“You’re dealing with people’s lives,” Mendez said. “In other fields of work, a mistake may not be as costly as it is in this field.”
And when that pressure leads to burnout, research has shown mistakes are more likely to happen, Horacek said. Not only that, but burnout leads to physician dissatisfaction and physicians under-performing in their jobs, he said.
And all of that, Horacek said, impacts patients.
“The patients that go to see them are more likely to be dissatisfied,” he said. “There is a tremendously strong economic case to make that burnout is affecting the satisfaction of patients, and there’s worse health outcomes and a lower quality of care if there are burned-out physicians involved.”