By David Schroeder, M.D., cardiologist
Practicing the art of mindful medicine
Co-founded Mindful Medicine, a nonprofit to help providers lower their stress, overcome “compassion fatigue” and rediscover the joy of medicine
Medical degree, Rutgers Medical School; residency and cardiology fellowship, Oregon Health & Science University
When did you start practicing mindfulness?
In 2006 I was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. At age 36, it was difficult to accept that I now had a chronic disease for which no amount of wishful thinking or healthy habits was going to fix. In addition, I was adapting to a relatively new role as father. As I struggled with these feelings of stress and changed identity, I found mindfulness.
What is it, exactly?
It’s the simple practice of maintaining moment-to-moment awareness of your breath, body sensations, thoughts and feelings. It’s surprisingly effective. Almost immediately I felt less stress, slept better and gained valuable perspective on my life. My sleep apnea is now treated – I no longer wake up to breathe – but I have continued a daily mindfulness practice. I’ve found that awareness of my breathing promotes waking up to the world around me.
Does this help you as a physician?
It’s been my experience – and this is supported by medical literature – that being truly present has enhanced my ability to understand my patients, and it has improved communication. Mindfulness skills do not add much time to a clinic visit and, in my opinion, they enhance the patient’s experience. I feel like I do a better job and have more fun doing it.
Is this why you helped create Mindful Medicine?
I and a group of like-minded physicians and mindfulness teachers thought other providers might benefit from these skills. Nearly half of all physicians in the United States have symptoms of burnout, which is associated with lower quality of life for the physician and worse outcomes for their patients. The opposite of burnout is engagement, which is something that mindfulness promotes. With Mindful Medicine, we hope to create a vehicle that supports mindfulness for the health care community.
Tell us about your group’s research on mindfulness
Several recent non-controlled pilot studies have shown improvement in physician well-being following mindfulness training. We’re planning a small, randomized-controlled trial that will extend these findings to include patient outcomes as well. Providence has generously supported us with a research grant to investigate this in primary care physicians. Stay tuned!
Do you offer courses for patients?
Not yet. Our teachers currently offer mindfulness and compassion training for the general public. In the future we would like to expand so that all health care staff can participate. Eventually courses specifically for patients might even be available.
Your roots are with Providence?
The physician co-founders of Mindful Medicine work at Providence Portland Medical Center, and are inspired by the Mission that explicitly celebrates compassionate service. We are grateful to the support from, among others, Jennifer Zelensky, Dr. Craig Wright, Dr. Ben LeBlanc, Providence Portland Medical Foundation and the Providence Clinical Transformation Council. That said, our goal is to reach interested physicians in the entire region, no matter their affiliation.
Besides mindfulness, how do you live a healthy life?
I am pretty committed to good diet, exercise, sleep and appropriate relaxation. I love running to work when my schedule permits, and being active outdoors with my family. Most nights I practice yoga in my daughter’s bedroom as she is falling asleep. I try to eat a whole food diet, largely plant-based, and am encouraged by Dr. Miles Hassell’s book, “Good Food, Great Medicine.” I make sure to leave room for warm chocolate chip cookies and ice cream!