March 1st, 2017

Study: Mindfulness programs prevalent

More than 60 percent of all U.S. medical schools have a mindfulness program to support students, residents or providers, according to a study by researchers at Cambridge Health Alliance and the University of Southern California, published in the journal, Mindfulness.

Mindfulness was most commonly integrated into medical schools as an option for health care providers looking for ways to care for themselves and enhance resiliency, such as through mindfulness-based therapies or wellness groups.

“This is the first attempt to capture the national scope of mindfulness activity within academic medicine and it suggests that mindfulness is no longer a fringe concept but rather one with a substantial foothold in medicine,” said lead author Nicholas Barnes, M.D., a resident physician in psychiatry at Cambridge Health Alliance, which is partnering with the Massachusetts Medical Society to host a mindfulness retreat for healthcare providers starting this month.

The study examined the prevalence of mindfulness-related activities in 140 accredited U.S. medical schools during 2014 and found that approximately 80 percent have already incorporated some form of mindfulness activity (e.g., research, wellness, clinical programs for patients, or curriculum).

Also, in 2014, 33 medical schools (about 25 percent of all U.S. medical schools) were affiliated with some kind of mindfulness center, where evidence-based, mindfulness-based interventions are offered and scientific medical research is being conducted.

The authors suggest that these Academic Mindfulness Centers Associated with Medical Schools (AMCAMS) have the potential to act as local hubs for implementation and dissemination of mindfulness programs within these institutions and among local providers.

The study indicated that formal involvement of medical students in AMCAMS programming is common, and medical residents, psychology trainees, and psychiatry residents are also involved to varying degrees.

Barnes said studies have shown that mindfulness practice can help health care providers in numerous ways. “Some have found that it can actually decrease medical errors, by decreasing mind wandering and increasing focus,” Barnes said. “Physicians were perceived by their patients to be better physicians. The physicians themselves felt like they had more time. Even though they were doing the same amount of work, they had a subjective experience of having more time.”

Barnes, from Arkansas, said he first learned about mindfulness when he attended Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire and uses mindfulness techniques himself. “I notice personally I am a better physician when I have a less harried feeling,” Barnes said. “It makes me more effective and productive. It’s something that has motivated me to study it. I’ve seen how helpful it is dealing with the challenges of being a busy physician and taking care of people.”

While the report showed that more than 60 percent of medical schools had a mindfulness program for students, residents or providers, it also showed that about 34 percent of medical schools or affiliated academic hospitals offer mindfulness-based interventions to patients in clinical settings.

“I think it was most readily adopted into academic medicine through the psychology field,” Barnes said. Barnes said he believes mindfulness-based interventions for patients will increase as more insurance companies provide reimbursements for such services.

“It is not recognized as a billable intervention throughout the general medical world,” Barnes said. “So people who want to take a mindfulness class may have to pay, which is untenable for a lot of patients who are already struggling.”

“But I think that’s something that is changing. I would imagine there are more people billing insurance now than when we did this study two years ago. Even in my own hospital where I work, we are now billing insurance for mindfulness groups and that’s something that started in the last year and a half. So I think it’s changing.”

Barnes said he also believes there needs to be more access to mindfulness programs, as they have been more prevalent in certain parts of the country or among particular socioeconomic groups.

By Pamela Berard

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