Sunday, 7 April 2013

Cash-strapped healthcare system looks to Buddhism to cut costs

From The Guardian

"Back in 1965, a grad student in molecular biology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology stumbled across a class of five people on Zen Buddhism. He'd never heard of Zen and knew nothing of Buddhism. Nearly half a century later, that grad student, Jon Kabat-Zinn, has arguably done more than any other individual to put Buddhism into the mainstream, not just in America, but in dozens of countries around the world. Now, Downing Street policymakers are keen to hear more.

"That first class took the top off my head. I found a sense of largeness beyond my little preoccupations of what would happen to my future, or my relationships," says Kabat-Zinn. "It opened up a new dimension of being which could offer more meaning and enable me to interface more effectively with society in a way which could be healing and transformative."

Kabat-Zinn's enthusiasm for that dramatic breakthrough is still palpable as he talks of how as a scientist he resolved to find a way to bring those benefits to millions of others. What he evolved over the next 15 years was the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programme; an eight-week set of meditation and yoga practices in classes and at home, which instil the basics of paying close attention to the current moment.

"I was teaching molecular biology of muscle development in medical school at the time, and began to ask doctors: 'What percentage of your patients do you help?' They thought it was about 15% to 20%."

So Kabat-Zinn set up a clinic to help the untreatable majority. "Patients turned up with all kinds of conditions: hypertension, cancer, anxiety."

As a scientist, Kabat-Zinn knew he needed evidence; anecdotes and testimony were not going to be enough to persuade the American health establishment. "I wrote up the chronic pain results first because they were astonishing." Since then, a steady stream of academic papers, books and, more recently, randomised control trials, have helped pave the way for hundreds of MBSR programmes in hospitals and medical centres across the US.

Kabat-Zinn's work has spawned a cluster of different applications of mindfulness training, including for addiction, the elderly and parenting. In the past couple of decades, Kabat-Zinn has collaborated with psychologists in the UK who have adapted his work for Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which has won recognition from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice), as a treatment for depression.

All of which explains why our interview is happening in Westminster, where Kabat-Zinn has a string of meetings with senior politicians before he heads to Downing Street for a session with policy advisers. There are good reasons for the policymakers to be listening closely, as Kabat-Zinn and his colleagues have a compelling proposition: mindfulness has unlimited applicability to almost every healthcare issue we now face – and it's cheap..."  Read it all 

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