My Varela award supported a pilot study based on two case studies of medical students in a Compassion Cultivation Training elective course at Stanford University School of Medicine. Current literature shows that burnout in physicians is prevalent, and is associated with poor health outcomes for both physicians and patients. Burnout is associated with lower levels of empathy, but it is unknown whether burnout leads to low empathy, or low empathy leads to burnout. Some have hypothesized that high empathy may lead to emotional exhaustion and burnout and that physicians may downregulate empathy in an attempt to cope. My research project proposed that Compassion Cultivation Training may decrease or prevent burnout by giving physicians and physicians-in-training an adaptive emotion regulation technique to cope with empathic experiences with patients. The results showed that the intervention resulted in increases in empathy and decreases in burnout related to emotional exhaustion. While the ability to extrapolate to a larger population is limited, these results suggest that cultivating a compassion-focused mindset may be a useful skill for medical students in training and that further study is warranted.

Elizabeth Goodman Gurfein

PGSP – Stanford Psy. D. Consortium