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How Meditation Could Help Heal Healthcare

Could teaching our children to meditate improve our healthcare system?

Key points

  • The United States currently spends more than $4 trillion on healthcare yet the healthcare systems ranks 22nd in the world.
  • Chronic stress is responsible for a large part of healthcare costs and has been called the "health epidemic of the 21st century."
  • Studies suggest that teaching patients to meditate decreases physician fees and reduces the need for healthcare services.

Our healthcare system is ailing. We spend too much and get too little. Can it be healed?

Most of the problems in our system are deeply ingrained and complex. But wouldn’t it be fortuitous if there was a single issue that could be easily and inexpensively addressed that would decrease costs and improve our healthcare from the ground up?

I think that chronic stress is that issue and that there is a good solution to it hiding in plain sight. As a primary-care physician for over 35 years, and a lifelong meditator (I began practicing Transcendental Meditation in 1975), it is my contention that teaching meditation in our middle schools would help lower our healthcare costs and improve our healthcare system. Here is my thinking and my reasons for thinking this.

The United States currently spends more than $4.01 trillion on healthcare. It is projected that by 2028 healthcare spending will reach $6.19 trillion, and account for 19.7% of GDP, up from 17.7% in 2018. We spend more than any other developed nation per capita on healthcare. Given that level of investment, shouldn’t we be able to provide all of our residents with quality, low-cost healthcare? Yet we fall well short of that goal. According to the U.S. News & World Report's 2021 "Best Countries" rankings, the United States is now 22nd on their list of the best public health care systems in the world. Worse yet, we fell seven spots this year as compared to their 2020 list.

The Epidemic of Stress

Stress has been called the "health epidemic of the 21st century" by the World Health Organization. In addition to chronic stress’s huge cost to our healthcare system, stress-related issues cost American companies about $300 billion in absenteeism, employee turnover, and poor performance.

It has been shown that stress and its related comorbid diseases are responsible for a large proportion of disability. And that parental stress is associated with greater pediatric emergency department utilization and decreasing parental stress reduces those costs. In over 35 years of recommending meditation to my patients, it has been abundantly clear to me that patients who begin to meditate feel better, are better parents, better employees, and need my care less than patients who don’t meditate.

Meditation Helps Heal Stress

If our educational system began teaching meditation in middle school before stress-related illnesses became too established, then going forward, those meditating students may be healthier and less costly patients. Prevention is much less expensive and much more effective than treating established illnesses. Studies show that teaching children to meditate improves their ability to focus and their psychological well-being, strengthens their immune systems, and increases their overall physical and mental health.

Would teaching middle schoolers to meditate decrease healthcare costs? So far, most studies have been done by teaching adults to meditate, but I think it’s safe to assume even greater savings would occur the earlier meditation was taught. In 2011, a study of patients with consistently high healthcare costs experienced a 28 percent cumulative decrease in physician fees after an average of five years practicing the Transcendental Meditation technique compared with their baseline. In 2015, a study by Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital showed that teaching adults meditation techniques could reduce the need for health care services by 43 percent in the first year alone.

Teaching Our Children

Given the remarkable decrease in healthcare costs in adult meditators over a short period of time, what would happen if middle school students learned to meditate. An ongoing project in middle schools called “quiet time” offers some insight into what might occur.

Students at four schools in an underprivileged San Francisco neighborhood were taught to meditate for 15 minutes twice a day during "quiet time," and the results have been remarkable. Over a four-year period during which sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade students practiced their “quiet time” meditation, suspensions decreased by 79 percent and attendance and academic performance noticeably increased. James S. Dierke, former Executive Vice President of the American Federation of School Administrators and ACSA Middle School Principal of the Year in 2007 says “The Quiet Time Program is the most powerful, effective program I’ve come across in my 40 years as a public school educator. It is nourishing these children and providing them an immensely valuable tool for life. It is saving lives.”

If teaching adults to meditate can result in a 43 percent reduction in healthcare utilization in just one year of daily meditation, what would the reduction be if those adults were taught to meditate in middle school? Indeed, what would happen to healthcare costs in our oldest, sickest, most expensive populations if they had been taught to meditate as teenagers? My bet is our healthcare costs would be much less than $4.01 trillion per year and we would be ranked much higher than 22nd in the U.S. News & World Report’s list.

Based on the science, I think it is reasonable to conclude that teaching our children to meditate could help heal our healthcare system and decrease its excessive costs. It’s time we begin to implement this simple and inexpensive solution and see if it works.

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