Mindful Doctors, Happy Patients

A new study shows that physicians with mindfulness skills communicate well with patients, and provide better quality care.

By Emily Nauman

An emerging body of research points to the benefits of mindfulness for physicians. Practicing mindfulness can reduce physician burnout, and improve physician well being.

Now research shows that physician mindfulness is good news for patients too: A new study published in the Annals of Family Medicine shows that physicians with mindfulness skills communicate well with patients, and provide better quality care.

In the study, Mary Catherine Beach of John Hopkins University and her colleagues administered questionnaires to measure the mindfulness skills of 45 clinicians caring for patients with HIV across the United States. Then, they recorded these clinicians interacting with their patients. They also interviewed the patients to get their perspective on the quality of their clinician’s care.

When the researchers analyzed the audio recordings of the clinician-patient interactions, they found that clinicians who were higher in mindfulness had more patient-centered communication—that is, they spent more time building rapport with their patient and talking about the patient’s experience, rather than focusing solely on the biomedical aspect of the patient’s illness. They also had a more positive emotional tone, spent more time in visits with their patients, and had patients who rated the quality of their communication and care more highly.

Why might mindfulness have this effect? The researchers think that because mindfulness involves attentiveness, curiosity, and presence, it promotes a greater awareness of the self and others. This awareness might help clinicians be better able to attend to the experience of others, and enable them to respond to their patients with more understanding, empathy, and compassion.

However, while this study shows that mindfulness and higher quality care are correlated, it does not show that mindfulness causes higher quality care; future research should investigate if a mindfulness intervention directly improves quality of the clinicians’ care, in order to rule out other factors that could account for the correlation.

The researchers also think that research should investigate if the perception of better quality care and communication leads to better patient health outcomes. They write, “In an era in which many physicians suffer professional burnout, mindful practice may be the way in which physicians not only heal themselves, but heal their patients as well.”

Emily Nauman is a GGSC research assistant. She completed her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College with a double major in Psychology and French, and has previously worked as a research assistant in Oberlin’s Psycholinguistics lab and Boston University’s Eating Disorders Program.

This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, one of Mindful‘s partners. To view the original event article, click here.

A still from the documentary film Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare.