Samir Dawlatly: Do I need to be more mindful?

In my relatively short career as a GP there has been a surge of interest in talking therapies for mental health problems. It seems that the “one-size-fits-all” population-based research being shoe-horned and imposed onto every patient in the consultation approach is what is needed and required by our paymasters. The current trend of therapy that has been researched and shown to be just as effective as medications in trials that may or may not be representative of my patients is supposed to be offered. Never mind that the waiting list may be [insert random number that sounds big] weeks long. First, cognitive behavioural therapy seemed to be all the rage. Now it appears that mindfulness is popular in both the counsellor’s room and in the mass media. One can even become mindful by colouring in patterns in expensive books, apparently.

I’m not sure I have had the pleasure, or opportunity to knowingly undergo mindfulness therapy. It has an appeal to me. My understanding is that it has its roots in Buddhist principles of being present to your surroundings. That is, to be focused solely on what is going on around you and not fretting about the past or worrying about the future.

Then I realised that being mindful, or being focussed on the present, is the challenge that faces all doctors dealing with patients, including GPs such as myself. For the duration of the consultation I need to focus on the patient in front of me; my mind needs to be full of what they are telling me, what my examination findings are, what I know of them already and what the options might be for any therapeutic intervention, beyond simply listening. Even then it is easy to be distracted from what they are actually saying.

But I don’t always get it right. Perhaps this is because I am a relative beginner, or that I am a perfectionist and can’t ignore the little flashing message that tells me that the patient with low mood and back ache needs a flu jab, or is overdue a cervical smear or asthma review.

“I’m sorry to hear that your mood is low and that you are having trouble sleeping. Does your asthma bother you at night as well?” That’s a particularly sneaky way to shoehorn in the asthma review with a patient who is suffering from depression.

Other factors that have an impact on my ability to be mindful are the reminders on my screen about the many patients who are waiting to see me, the pressing need to go to the toilet (I’ll just see one more patient), the screen message from reception to speak to them about an something urgent. The list can grow and the patient suffers as I try my best to block it all out and focus. Perhaps I should go on a mindfulness course, not for my sake, but for my patients’. At the moment I feel that I am not colouring in pretty box shapes, but sometimes merely ticking them.

Samir Dawlatly is a GP partner at Jiggins Lane Surgery in Birmingham. He combines clinical practice with being a part time house husband and an interest in social media, as well as publishing poems, essays, and blogs. He can be found on Twitter as @sdawlatly.

Competing interests: I have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare the following interests: I am a member of the RCGP online working group on overdiagnosis.