Brown researchers say this could really help with physician burnout

Doctors, nurses, and physicians of all kinds are on everyone’s minds right now. As ICUs and hospitals all over the country become flooded with coronavirus patients, health care workers are doing their best to help as many people as they can. Despite their efforts, and through no fault of their own, the sheer volume of critical cases is just too much for our medical infrastructure to handle. 

Beyond the physical toll that these now common 12-hour shifts are taking on physicians, a heavy emotional cost is also being extracted. Medical workers in ICUs, not just in the United States but all over the world, are being exposed to truly harrowing circumstances on a daily basis. These selfless professionals are surrounded by suffering, and in many cases they’re powerless to help.

Levels of anxiety, stress, and burnout that are inconceivable to the rest of us have become an everyday routine in hospitals. Begging the question: how are doctors and nurses supposed to cope with and internalize what happened on Monday and then get up and do it all again on Tuesday? There’s no easy answer here, but a new piece of research from Brown University has an idea in the form of a mindfulness app. 

“Health care providers are under tremendous pressure right now,” comments Dr. Jud Brewer, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University, in a press release. “Physician burnout was already reaching ‘epidemic’ proportions before this pandemic hit.”

Prior research had found that physicians are most likely to feel burnt out and stressed when they’ve lost control of a medical situation. Lack of control leads to anxiety and stress which ultimately results in burnout. Countless physicians have expressed this exact sentiment regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether it’s due to a lack of ventilators, no available PPE, or simply not enough space for new patients, doctors all over the world have never felt so helpless.

The app, called Unwinding Anxiety, offers users a daily mindfulness training program designed to promote anxiety relief. The app doesn’t take a blanket approach either; users are encouraged to discover personal anxiety triggers and break their stress cycle. 

For reference, mindfulness defined broadly means bringing one’s attention solely on the present moment while serenely acknowledging any lingering intrusive thoughts, feelings, or sensations. 

The research team tested the app’s effects on a group of 34 physicians. 

“Clinicians need effective tools to help them reduce anxiety and burnout,” Dr. Brewer explains. “Digital therapeutics are an ideal solution because people can use them in small doses, at home, on their own schedule. The app-based mindfulness training that we studied does just that: It provides short daily training — about 10 minutes per day — that people can access from their smartphone, and it gives them tools they can use throughout the day.”

Three months after all the participating doctors had used the app for a full month, they scored 57% lower in a series of anxiety indicators. Additionally, a 50% drop in cynicism was noted and a 20% decrease in emotional exhaustion. Both cynicism and emotional exhaustion are considered precursors to burnout, suggesting the app can help alleviate that as well.

The fact that the “treatment” is easily accessible from one’s phone is a plus for doctors right now. If they’re feeling a panic attack coming on or extra burnt out, knowing that the app is just a few clicks away may be enough to maintain a sense of calm and get through whatever situation is bringing about that stress.

“The pharmaceutical industry hasn’t released any new anti-anxiety medications in decades and to my knowledge has no new drugs in the pipeline,” Dr. Brewer concludes. “We need effective treatments, especially those that can be widely disseminated at low cost. Digital therapeutics, like app-based treatments, are the next wave of treatment.”

Perhaps we as a collective society failed to give the night-shift nurses and around-the-clock doctors of the world the credit they always deserved before this awful virus appeared. We’re all feeling more appreciative of health care workers and wish we could lend a helping hand. If this app can alleviate just a tiny fraction of the stress physicians are feeling, it’s worth a download.

The full study can be found here, published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth.