Long hours, constant worry about the health of patients, and increases in clerical work can lead to physicians becoming overworked, frustrated, and depressed. One issue specific to healthcare professionals is compassion fatigue, which can result in emotional numbing.

Any type of burnout affecting physicians can lead to decreased quality of patient care, including increases in medical errors. Some medical schools are creating programs specifically to target physician burnout, such as Stanford Medicine’s Compassion Cultivation Training and Emory University’s Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT) program.

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Emory’s CBCT program is a part of the university’s Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, which aims to combine both Western and Tibetan Buddhist traditions to address compassion fatigue and burnout on an intellectual, rather than material, level. According to the program website, “CBCT…deliberately and systematically works to cultivate compassion.”1

Benito Suares, PhD, senior associate dean for research at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, emphasized the importance of compassion vs empathy in an interview with the Journal-Star of Peoria, noting that empathy “is an essential tool for practicing medicine, but sometimes manifests itself as a feeling of shared suffering. CBCT can help students learn to see patients in pain, but rather than suffer alongside them, aspire to improve their situation.”2

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The program uses strategies such as meditation to encourage mental clarity and stability, self-compassion, appreciation for others, and empathy. “The practice of CBCT intensifies the desire to help others, allowing compassion to become more natural and spontaneous in one’s everyday life,” the program information notes. For physicians who are constantly confronted with situations that necessitate compassion and empathy, compassion training can relieve some of the burden and allow for increased self-care.

Carol E. Beck, associate director for communications and operations at the center, is hopeful about the future of CBCT-based programs in the healthcare field: “We are growing organically as the program is discovered…at other institutions, such as the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria, [the] Cleveland Clinic…and Hospital Israelita Albert Einstein in Sao Paulo, Brazil,” she said in an interview with Medical Bag. “Most recently, we taught CBCT to the practitioners in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at Children’s Hospital Atlanta,”

Ms Beck added that the program is expanding to other healthcare professionals, including nurses, hospital chaplains, and emergency physicians. “[There are] researchers using CBCT as a clinical intervention working across the US, Brazil, and Europe.”


  1. About the Emory-Tibet Partnership. Emory University. https://tibet.emory.edu/about/index.html. Accessed May 3, 2018.
  2. Nightengale L. Why medical schools are teaching self-care alongside patient care. Journal-Star. http://www.pjstar.com/news/20170625/why-medical-schools-are-teaching-self-care-alongside-patient-care. Published June 25, 2018. Accessed May 21, 2018.