Mindfulness in medicine a problem? – PZ Myers thinks so

Some have begun to question the role of mindfulness in health maintenance, with even PZ Myers getting in on the act:

I've read some of these studies, and am unimpressed. Most of them assess subjective phenomena ("chronic pain" is notoriously amenable to suggestion, for instance), …

Yes, precisely, PZ. Thanks for making the point. Mindfulness can improve the effectiveness of pain relief without increases in harmful drugs, which may be in conflict with other medically necessary drugs. Here are some studies on the subject.

In “Mindful medical practice: just another fad?” (Canadian Family Physician, 2009 August), Tom A. Hutchinson and Patricia L. Dobkin tackled the problems, observing the following:

n preparing this article we read many of those 300 papers on mindfulness published in the past 10 years. We found that writing (and reading) about mindfulness can rapidly turn into a sterile scholastic exercise. The difficulty in comprehending mindfulness by reading about it arises because mindfulness, in a distinction proposed by philosopher Jacob Needleman,10 is an idea not a concept.

Ideas, according to Needleman, have an experiential component that must be effectively transmitted in order to reach their full effect. Concepts, on the other hand, only need the right words to be effectively communicated. We are concerned that if mindfulness is discussed at a conceptual level, rather than practised experientially, it will become a passing fashion.

There is a second problem. Mindfulness does not appear to have a clear medical goal or purpose. Being more alive and aware sounds laudable, but will it fix a fractured hip or get you a grant?

Maybe not, but mindfulness will help you avoid serious depression or a drinking problem, as a result of setbacks. Thus, the authors conclude:

We believe that mindfulness has 2 distinct but intimately related goals that are at the heart of good medical practice: the promotion of well-being among health care workers and the facilitation of healing in patients. Healing is a complex individual process, and the physician’s task is further complicated because he or she has 2 divergent jobs to perform simultaneously: curing disease and fostering healing in patients.

Nevertheless, without attempting to summarize the recent literature on healing in medicine, we would point out that healing is an ancient part of the health care mandate that involves patients moving from suffering to a sense of integrity and wholeness, whether or not their disease is cured or even improving. Clinical experience suggests that health care practitioners facilitate healing by being open, accepting, and focused in the present moment. Mindfulness meditation training helps us practise this way of being so that we can be effective facilitators of healing for ourselves and our patients.

Or, as Sir William Osler, M.D. put it, “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always.”

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain. Follow UD News at Twitter!

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