What do leaders of the U.S. Marines, Google, The Seattle Seahawks, and a Kentucky school system have in common? They’re betting that meditation can help their constituents, who have strikingly different “day jobs,” perform and live better.

The practice takes many forms, but one of the most prevalent, mindfulness meditation, entails concentrating on an “object” (physical, or figurative), noting when one’s attention wanders, then gently bringing it back to the object. The goal is to train the brain to recognize thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations as they arise. The resulting awareness can allow for a more thoughtful response to stimuli, rather than unwitting reactions that cause oneself or others suffering—such as barbed criticism or unhealthy eating.

People have been practicing mindfulness meditation for thousands of years, but it has only recently become mainstream in the U.S. Today, it’s hard to find a sector where the practice isn’t creeping into service optimization or delivery. Major healthcare providers like The Mayo Clinic and Kaiser Permanente offer it to patients for pain and depression management, while global corporations like Goldman Sachs and Pfizer offer it to employees for stress reduction. Coaches are increasingly teaching it to elite athletes, and teachers to primary school kids, in order to improve focus, decision-making and performance. Mindfulness meditation programs are emerging in prisons, police forces, and the U.S. Senate in pursuit of some or all of the abovementioned benefits.

Mindfulness meditation is big business, too. Fortune Magazine recently reported that the mindfulness and meditation industry topped over $1 billion in revenues in 2015, according to IBISWorld market research. And consumers can now choose from nearly 1,000 apps dedicated to the practice, like Headspace and 10% Happier, according to data analytics company Sensor Tower.

A Disruptive elixir for all that ails?

Mindfulness meditation clearly addresses some important, unmet needs in society today, and it can be practiced by anyone, at no cost. In the realm of healthcare, studies have shown it may alleviate depression, anxiety, stress, pain and other common, burdensome conditions for some people. If so, the practice may help reduce condition-related costs when undertaken as a preventive measure, or by complementing or replacing traditional therapies, such as expensive medication. As such, mindfulness meditation possesses real disruptive potential.

It also meets another criterion of disruptive solutions: it falls short on some important, traditional metric of performance. For instance in terms of suiting patient preference, mindfulness meditation certainly doesn’t appeal to everyone, and many people might find it more comfortable or convenient to follow a drug regimen than engage in the practice.

What would it take for mindfulness meditation to disrupt traditional interventions for conditions like depression?

According to Health Affairs, mental disorders are the most costly category of medical conditions in America, driving $201 billion in personal health spending in 2013. Depression alone accounted for $87 billion of that, and a Harvard study suggests that’s less than 50% of total spending related to depression, which includes the costs of work absenteeism and suicide.

If the practice of mindfulness meditation fulfills its disruptive potential in healthcare, it could mitigate some of these costs, and the enormous suffering that accompanies them. That’s an encouraging vision, but hardly assured. So what would it take to realize it?

  • More scientific evidence. Researchers at leading institutions like Harvard, Stanford and Oxford are exploring the physical and psychological benefits of mindfulness meditation. But to fully support the practice as an effective therapy, many healthcare providers, payers and patients will need to see more, high-quality scientific findings on how it affects different types of individuals, in which circumstances, and why.
  • Industry shift to fee-for-value payments. As a self-managed practice, mindfulness meditation is not likely to generate revenue for providers working in traditional fee-for-service delivery models, which still dominate the industry. So its expanded use in healthcare depends on the industry’s continued shift toward fee-for-value models. These reward providers for helping patients regain or maintain health, rather than for simply treating them, or at worst, prescribing costly or unnecessary interventions. Thus they motivate exploration of innovative solutions like mindfulness meditation, which might promote health in a more convenient and affordable way than traditional treatments.
  • Scalable delivery models: Just as healthcare practice varies considerably across institutions and geographies, so mindfulness meditation practice varies from one individual to the next. Given this, the healthcare industry will need to learn how to create, or partner with, mindfulness meditation programs that can be integrated into many heterogeneous healthcare systems, while delivering consistently optimal results on the individual level.Initiatives like The Compassionate Schools Project in Louisville, Kentucky, could accelerate progress in this area.Supported by the University of Virginia, the project comprises a comprehensive health and wellness curriculum rooted in meditation practice and principles, which will be delivered to over 10,000 elementary school children over a number of years. While the project’s objectives reach beyond health to improved learning and citizenship, its education context poses scalability challenges similar to those in healthcare. It should therefore offer valuable learnings for innovators of meditation-based healthcare solutions.

As vanishing margins, the chronic disease epidemic, and unprecedented regulatory uncertainty heap increasingly intense pressure on our healthcare delivery system, the need is greater than ever for better, more affordable treatments for the most costly, common conditions afflicting Americans today. For healthcare innovators keen to disrupt traditional treatments, the practice of mindfulness meditation represents serious food for thought.

For more on healthcare innovation, see:

Health for hire: Unleashing patient potential to reduce chronic disease costs


  • Rebecca Fogg
    Rebecca Fogg