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December 18, 2020

Teaching mindfulness in medicine

Physicians are not alone, says Kathy Stepien, M.D.

Physicians are not alone, says Kathy Stepien, M.D. "There is nothing in their situation that hasn’t been experienced by others," she says. - Photo by Kaley McGoey

Name: Kathy Stepien, M.D., FAAP, MA, PT

Title: Director and CEO, Institute for Physician Wellness


Undergraduate: University of Wisconsin, Lacrosse

Med school: University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle

Residency: Marshfield Clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital, Marshfield, Wisconsin

Stepien is a board-certified pediatrician who has a master’s degree in philosophy with a special interest in ethics. Prior to becoming a physician, she worked as a physical therapist for 13 years. She founded the Institute for Physician Wellness in 2016, a mission-driven organization with a goal to support self-care and the professional development of physicians and physicians in training. The organization provides continuing medical education workshops, conferences, retreats and consultations in North America and beyond.

What do you like about being a physician educator?

A big part of what I do as an educator is to bring people together and help them realize the majority of physicians are struggling with physician wellness. I enjoy helping physicians learn that they are not alone in needing to create a map for themselves that will help support wellness throughout their careers.

What surprised you about the work?

I did not anticipate how extraordinarily lonely and isolated many physicians feel. It is breathtaking at times to know so many physicians are struggling, and struggling to such a depth, to be able to simply do what they trained and love to do. We know that greater than 50 percent of physicians in America report symptoms of burnout: depersonalization, emotional exhaustion and decreased feelings of accomplishment. We know that numbers that high cannot be contributed to a personal trait of physicians; burnout is caused by a broken medical system. The model by which we delivery care to our patients needs revamping.

What advice would you give someone who wants to educate physicians?

First, I’d ask what it is you love. I teach on physician wellness because it is something I love doing and find incredibly important. I dislike the thought that people have given so much of themselves to medicine, so many years of education, training and work only to find they are miserable. If someone was interested in physician education, they should think about what it is that they enjoy. It may be pathophysiology, biochemistry, public health, or how to use a computer effectively to support our work. Topics are endless. I would talk with other physicians who are teachers and ask them what their paths looked like.

If they are already a practicing physician and are interested in teaching other physicians, whether it’s about physician wellness or whatever specialty they have, it takes reflection. They need to understand what their skills are, what skills they would like to develop, and how much time they have to commit to this versus their clinical practice and other responsibilities.

Anything else?

Physician wellness is not optional. It’s not an add-on for when time allows. It is essential to being an excellent physician. Want to be a great doctor? It must include self-care. I’d also like to add that every physician should recognize that they are not alone in medicine. While they may feel lonely or struggling with a variety of issues, there are physicians around them that they can reach out to. There is nothing in their situation that hasn’t been experienced by others. Personal and professional development occurs throughout our careers.

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