Thoughtful Medicine

August 1, 2013 by School of Medicine Webmaster

balanceBy the end of his first year of Medical School, Robert Abbot was completely overwhelmed – in the health care profession, this physical and emotional exhaustion is called “burnout” and it’s common. “It’s really typical of med students,” says Rob. “I wasn’t taking time to take care of myself. I know a lot of students turn to drinking or medication.” Rob needed to focus on his own health and get some perspective, so he withdrew from medical school.

Although Rob’s roommate and fellow medical student, Thomas Ball, continued with school, he understood where Rob was coming from. At their kitchen table in Charlottesville they talked about common suffering experiences. They noticed that other students in their class were struggling, too. “The best thing about taking time off,” says Rob, “was really connecting with people and sharing experiences.” Rob and Thomas realized that their burdens were common and didn’t have to be carried alone. Thus, Thoughtful Medicine was born.

Thoughtful Medicine promotes reflection in a confidential, stress-free environment. Rob hopes that health care students and professionals struggling to find meaning or purpose in their work will find solace here. Though Thoughtful Medicine has only been running since May, it’s already been a success, and Rob hopes even more people will drop in during the coming months.

Each week, the group divides itself into small groups of about 7 or 8 members. The session begins with a check-in, after which someone in the group volunteers to share a recent health care experience. “The discussion moves on organically from there,” says Rob. They always have a lot to talk about. Members share or listen to experiences and learn about how others manage their day-to-day training or work as healers.

One of the great things about the group, says Rob, is that it’s “non-professional and commitment-free. You can share as much or as little as you want, and there’s no structure of requirement, entitlement, or prejudice.” The non-hierarchal setting means that there’s no particular leader and that everyone who comes is viewed as an equal member of the sharing process. Already the group has included medical students, nursing students, faculty, and members of chaplain services.

“The door is always open and there is never judgment on those who have to leave early or arrive late,” says Rob. “We have a policy of leaving free chairs open for those who join later. We call it ‘holding the space.’” Some people come weekly and others come occasionally – either way is completely acceptable.

Rob hopes Thoughtful Medicine will help to decrease burnout and create better healers. Members realize they aren’t alone, connect with others, and reconnect with the reasons they went into health care. Through sharing or listening, they relieve some of their suffering. He notes that the group is also a great way to learn the empathetic language so important to being a physician or other healer.

Robert Abbot will be going back to medical school in January. In the meantime, he works with children at the YMCA and with multiple research groups at UVA. He’s primarily involved in research centered on Mind/Body Medicine. “We are looking at how positive outlook and gratitude can help those recovering from open heart surgery,” says Rob.

He also attends weekly Thoughtful Medicine groups. The group is open to anyone working or training the health care field, including medical school students, residents, faculty, staff, nursing students and professionals, and chaplain residents and staff. “The door is always open,” says Rob. This semester, the group will meet on Mondays from 5:30 to 6:30 in McLeod 5060. If you have questions or would like to receive emails about meeting information or changes, email Robert Abbot at

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