‘Profoundly impactful’: Medical professionals incorporate mindfulness practices

UW Surgical Dept. starts weekly group session
‘Profoundly impactful’: Medical professionals incorporate mindfulness practices

Whether it’s running experiments or performing complex surgery, days on the job in UW’s Surgery Department fill up fast.

“Things go wrong, you have to put out fires, just deadlines at a lot of meetings,” said Matthew Brown, assistant professor in the division of transplantation.

On top of cancer surgery, Surgical Oncology Division Chief Sharon Weber does research and leads eight others doing surgery.

“There are many things, ongoing and competing demands,” Weber said. “I have clearly had times when I know I’m doing a really difficult case … I’m thinking about that family. I’m thinking about that patient.”

The newest prescription is to slow down and take some space.

Brown, who usually does research, has started leading a short mindfulness meditation session for staff and faculty in the surgical department once a week.

He knows it can be hard to find the time, but Brown said it’s worth it.

“There’s a saying, to paraphrase, ‘If you don’t think you have time to do 20 minutes of meditation, that means you should do 40 minutes of meditation a day,” he said.

It’s meditation as a sort of medication for stress. Attendees focus on their breath and listen to different guided meditations every Wednesday.

“I’ve been doing it for about four years, and that was a life-changing experience,” Brown said. “It changed the way I look at things and increased the buffer I have for dealing with stresses in life.”

According to Brown, attendance to the newly implemented session varies, but about 15 to 20 people are interested, and he hopes to see it grow.

Weber said it seems the medical world is putting more of an emphasis on employee wellness and mindfulness than ever before, and meditation is starting to lose some of its stigma as it becomes more mainstream.

She gets her meditation practice from an app and takes that mindfulness with her into the operating room.

“I’ll literally be outside the room getting ready to walk in to start the operation, I will be just trying to use some of the techniques from mindfulness to be able to set the agenda, have a vision, be calm walking into the room when there’s all this other energy happening around, what’s going to happen to the patient, and wanting the best to happen,” Weber said, adding that mindfulness can make a difference even in short bursts.

“Most surgeons don’t take a lunch break,” she said. “Could you take 10 minutes in a day to spend time in a wellness effort?”

Research suggests mindfulness-based practices have potential to increase surgery residents’ well-being and executive function.

“Just as we have data around physician burnout leading to poor patient outcomes, it only makes sense that if you increase overall wellness with mindfulness practices that that will actually enhance patient outcomes, as well,” Weber said.

A substantial amount of research shows benefits for nonmedical professionals, as well, with much of it being done here in Madison.

“It’s important for people to understand that it doesn’t mean you’re not sitting on a pillow for an hour chanting, but that these very focused periods of time of really setting time apart from what is going on in the rest of life can be profoundly impactful in all other things that one is doing,” Weber said.

“I know there’s studies in the workplace showing benefits. For me, it’s funny. As a researcher, I look to data, and anecdotal evidence isn’t valid in my own research,” Brown said. “For this, my experience has been that it works for me.”

It’s enough that Brown and Weber recommend giving it a shot.

“It impacts one’s, in my own experience, one’s entire world, both the work piece and the home piece,” Weber said.

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