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Mindfulness and Improv Help Pharmacy Students Cope with Burnout

May 14, 2019

Anne Graff LaDisa, Pharm.D., BCPS, uses improv to teach student pharmacists about effective communication skills.

IN A QUIET LOW-LIT CLASSROOM, students sit comfortably with their eyes closed and their spines straight. They bring attention to their breathing and imagine that they have a balloon in their stomachs. Every time they breathe in, the balloon inflates. Every time they breathe out, the balloon deflates. With every exhale, the students imagine their daily stresses and frustrations floating away. This isn’t a mindfulness retreat at some hideaway resort or the calming conclusion of a power yoga class. It’s a pharmacy course at the Concordia University-Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, where two professors are teaching students to use mindfulness to cope with burnout both during school and throughout their future careers.

According to Christina Martin, Pharm.D., M.S., Director of Membership Forums for ASHP, pharmacist burnout is a serious concern. A 2018 study published in AJHP reported that more than half of health-system pharmacists surveyed felt a high degree of burnout. In addition, a recent salary survey found that two-thirds of pharmacists experienced increased job stress over the previous year, and that 72 percent said workloads increased from the year before.

“When healthcare providers feel stressed, it can also have an impact on their patients,” said Dr. Martin. Burnout is associated with more medical errors and poorer patient safety outcomes, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. “We really have to care for the caregiver and ensure that we’re providing resources and support to those who are caring for patients in very chaotic healthcare times,” she added.

Mindfulness in the Classroom

Elizabeth Buckley, Pharm.D., CDE

Elizabeth Buckley, Pharm.D., CDE, Associate Professor of Pharmacy at Concordia University-Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, often includes the balloon-in-the-stomach exercise in her classes. She first introduced it while teaching a diabetes elective for third-year pharmacy students in the spring of 2017 — and she saw immediate changes. It made a huge difference “on attitude, on calmness, on collegiality,” she said.

It worked so well that in the fall of 2018, she added it to her weekly lectures in the Applied Patient Care I course, which is for first-year pharmacy students. “The tone of the class changed in a significant way. Everyone settled down and the discussion was more robust,” she said. “The mindfulness exercise centered me, and it centered the class.”

Dr. Buckley hopes that teaching pharmacy students mindfulness now will help them avoid burnout in the future. “If you’re going to be in a career where you care for other people, you have to figure out self-care in order to be good at being a clinician,” she said.

Improv Shakes Things Up

Anne Graff LaDisa, Pharm.D., BCPS, Associate Professor of Pharmacy at Concordia University-Wisconsin School of Pharmacy, began teaching an improvisational class to first-year students to help bolster communication and teamwork skills. Improv is a theatrical technique where the characters and dialog in scene or story are made up on the spot. Communication skills learned through improv can help a student become a good pharmacist, she noted. Although she didn’t introduce improv classes for pharmacy students with combating burnout in mind, she explained that improv exercises allow students to be creative and break up a school routine.

Anne Graff LaDisa, Pharm.D., BCPS

Dr. LaDisa began taking improv classes herself in 2003. When she discovered that medical schools were using improv to teach and improve medical students’ communications skills, she became intrigued — even more so when she learned that the University of Arizona has been using improv in its pharmacy school since 2004.

She introduced improv to an existing course in 2015, then taught her first stand-alone elective course for first-, second-, and third-year students in 2017. At the beginning of every class, she reviews the rules of improv, which include always saying “yes, and …” to what your partner is trying to communicate, emphasizing the here and now, being specific, and focusing on characters and relationships.

In Dr. LaDisa’s class, a two-person scene requires the students to follow the rules of improv and may involve a scenario unrelated to healthcare. After the students complete the improv exercise, she asks them questions about how they felt about the activity – what things they found challenging and what skills they felt they had to use to be successful. Finally, the students talk about how to apply those skills to clinical pharmacy practice.

Role-playing in a healthcare or social setting can help pharmacy students improve collaboration and teamwork skills. “Improv training gives students an advantage when it comes to communication, which is a critical skill for all pharmacists,” she said.

By Jen A. Miller

 

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