A national expert in training medical students to avoid physician burnout visited Virginia Tech Carilion Medical School to talk about the importance of practicing mindfulness.

“The mind and body are connected. When I say mind-body, it isn’t an abstract term from California. It’s a hardwired connection,” said Dr. Aviad Haramati, a professor of physiology and medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center.

Haramati founded the Center for Innovation and Leadership in Education at Georgetown to incorporate into the medical school curriculum methods to teach students resilience.

On Tuesday Haramati met with students and faculty at VTC and the following morning shared the science behind burnout and reversing its effect with Carilion Clinic health care workers.

Haramati said researchers found that one in every two physicians experienced symptoms of burnout during the past year, whether it was emotional exhaustion, the loss of the ability to see patients as individuals or a negative view of accomplishment.

These factors contribute to a loss of the ability to express empathy and an increased dissatisfaction with work-life balance. Charted over several years, physicians’ empathy and satisfaction scores – already worse than the general population – continued to decline.

He talked about the impact on the body when multiple stressors set off hormonal responses and don’t allow the body to reset.

“The stressors are not going to go away,” he said. “How do we prepare people to deal with them?”

Haramati said teaching students how to be resilient through the practice of mindfulness is having a positive impact. As a whole, students enter medical school more mentally healthy than their college-educated peers. But by the third year, they experience a rapid decline in empathy that never comes back, he said.

Burnout is experienced by all health care workers, he said.

Dr. Richard Vari, senior dean for academic affairs at VTC, said, “I think we are going to have to do something. We’re small, we’re new and we’re flexible so we have more of an ability to do something.”

Vari said VTC could look at its interprofessionalism program and draw in nursing and physician assistant students.

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