By Ellen Feldman, MD

Altru Health System, Grand Forks, ND

Dr. Feldman reports no financial relationships relevant to this field of study.

SYNOPSIS: A review of studies regarding brief mindfulness interventions for healthcare providers found an association with improved measures of provider well-being and no evidence of behavioral changes.

SOURCE: Gilmartin H, Goyal A, Hamati MC, et al. Brief mindfulness practices for healthcare providers — A systematic literature review. Am J Med 2017; July 4. pii: S0002-9343(17)30633-2. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2017.05.041. [Epub ahead of print].

The popularity of mindfulness can be a double-edged sword. Some may be wrongfully tempted to dismiss the term as part of a new trend with “Mindful Eating,” “The Mindful Teen,” and “Mindful Work” publications offering seemingly unlimited possibilities of finding solutions to life problems through this technique. Yet, the concept of mindfulness dates back to the late 1800s, when the term emerged as an adaptation of a Buddhist concept, Sati, one of the factors considered to be on the pathway to enlightenment.1 This Buddhist construct appears unrelated to the Hindi use of Sati.2

About 100 years later, the Buddhist concept was secularized by molecular biologist and meditator Jon Kabat-Zinn, who defined mindfulness as “the awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”3

Medical evidence for use of mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, guided imagery, yoga, and desensitization-relaxation exercises, coexist with a more casual use in lay literature. Quality studies looking at use of these interventions to decrease stress and improve decision-making are growing.4 Given the high-tension and high-stakes outcomes inherent in medical practices, it is no surprise that attention has been paid to the use of mindfulness techniques among medical providers.

Preliminary studies show some promise for use of mindfulness interventions in healthcare practitioners, but the time required for training medical providers in these techniques is identified as a limitation to implementation.5 Brief interventions were developed as an attempt to surmount this obstacle. Gilmartin et al conducted a review of 14 relevant studies to determine if these brief mindfulness interventions showed significant association with improvement in provider well-being and/or behavior. For the study purposes, brief interventions were defined as those with training periods lasting less than four hours. Within this time frame, any technique that fit a general definition of mindfulness was included. Delivery systems ranged from in-person to recordings to virtual.

Measurements of well-being included self-reports of stress and anxiety levels, depression, symptoms of burnout, and quality of life. Behavior changes were more objective and included changes in academic performance, tests of attention, or incidence of diagnostic errors.

Fourteen studies met inclusion criteria, with just more than half of the studies published since 2015. More than 800 healthcare providers participated within hospital or inpatient settings. Studies were drawn from four countries — United States (nine studies), Canada (two studies), Thailand (two studies), and Australia (one study). Almost 80% of the participants were female. Half of the studies were conducted with nurses or nursing students, while the other half used physicians, medical students, or residents.

All 14 studies used multiple measures of provider well-being. Although several of the studies identified significant change in only a subgroup of measures of well-being, only two studies found no significant improvement in any measure of provider well-being. On the contrary, only two studies included an assessment of changes in provider behavior following intervention, and neither found a significant association between a brief mindfulness intervention and change in provider behavior.

This effort to better understand the effect of brief mindfulness interventions on healthcare providers is a welcome approach to a poorly studied area of healthcare: how to best take care of the caregivers. It is tough to argue against the concept that better-functioning providers lead to better medical care, but the scientific connection is essential to explore, delineate, and document.

While looking at the combined results analyzed in this review, it is important to be cautious assigning causality. The heterogeneity of the included studies (in design, population, methodology, and outcomes) makes understanding and generalizing these results particularly challenging. This leads to the hope that the future will bring more robust and rigorously conducted investigations to best understand interventions that offer healthcare providers the maximum benefits.

Do healthcare providers need care? Results of multiple recent studies regarding the rise of burnout in this profession, as well as the association of an engaged and empathic provider to improved care outcomes, suggest the importance of addressing symptoms of stress, anxiety, and burnout in providers.19,20 It is interesting that this review was not able to identify any provider behaviors that were changed in association with the interventions, but important to note that only two studies attempted measurements in this area. Large-scale studies looking at specific targeted provider behaviors are needed before drawing conclusions regarding brief mindfulness interventions and these type of outcomes.

Prior to this publication, studies of the effect of mindfulness interventions for healthcare providers concluded that the techniques hold promise for the field, but that the time required to train, practice, and implement represented a significant barrier to use in hospital work.5,21 This review study helps bring some clarification to this area, suggesting that brief mindfulness training is associated with a reduction in healthcare providers’ perception of stress and anxiety. The results do not lean strongly toward any one type of training — it may be that the type of mindfulness training is not as important as accessibility to providers.

It is worth noting that although many studies measured lower rates of stress and anxiety, few studies showed an association of these brief measures with reduction in burnout symptoms. This is consistent with other studies in the area of provider burnout that have suggested the need for organizational interventions along with individual interventions to affect this syndrome.22

Criteria for inclusion in this review were limited to studies only involving inpatient settings; the results showed no evidence or implication that these brief measures have a place in outpatient settings. Healthcare providers work in many environments — even within the broad categories of inpatient and outpatient work specifics of job description — patient population, administrative strategies, and mission create unique, site-specific demands and challenges. It is not clear how to generalize results of studies (such as the ones included in this review) to all settings and to all healthcare providers, but it is important to clarify this point through future work. Even though data are lacking, there is little evidence of downsides to the use of brief techniques and time commitment, the only identified barriers to the use of the more comprehensive mindfulness interventions.

In the practice of medicine, we tend to rely on evidence-based studies to make recommendations to our patients. Make no mistake — we should expect no less for ourselves. Despite some limitations to the studies, the results point to clear potential benefits of incorporating a degree of mindfulness into the professional life of healthcare providers. Providers can be confident that trying a time-limited or more extensive mindfulness technique to help modulate stress and/or anxiety has merit and emerging evidence of effectiveness.


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