Spirituality and Religion in Health Care

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An engagement with the spiritual dimensions of life has always been an essential component of health and wellbeing. In modern times, the role of spirituality and religion in medicine encompasses such practices as the use of meditation and prayer in healing, pastoral counseling, evoking forgiveness and compassion, engaging the mystery of death in end of life care, and the search for meaning in illness for patients and families as well as the health professionals who work with them. Integrative medicine emphasizes the importance of bringing spirituality into the healing process.

“Many Americans rely on prayer and spirituality for the benefit of health,” said Stephen E. Straus, MD, former Director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Indeed, a 2004 survey of more than 31,000 adults conducted by researchers at the National Center for Health Statistics and NCCAM found that prayer was the most commonly used practice among all the approaches mentioned in the survey.

While there are challenges in conducting quantifiable scientific research on the effects of practices as unquantifiable as prayer, recent research has begun to shed light on the role of spirituality in health. “There is already some preliminary evidence for a connection between prayer and related practices and health outcomes,” noted Catherine Stoney, PhD, an NCCAM Program Officer in the Division of Extramural Research and Training. “For example, we’ve seen some evidence that religious affiliation and religious practices are associated with health and mortality—in other words, with better health and longer life. Such connections may involve immune function, cardiovascular function, and/or other physiological changes.”

“The primary reason to focus on the role of prayer in healing is not to prove its effectiveness,” suggested Larry Dossey, MD, an expert on the role of both consciousness and prayer in health. “The best reason goes deeper. Prayer says something incalculably important about who we are and what our destiny may be.”

It is in this realm that pastoral care has been so helpful. Institutions like The Healthcare Chaplaincy in New York bring together clergy from a variety of faiths to work with those in need. Pastoral care sometimes consists of last rites, and sometimes simply words of comfort before a chemotherapy session or helping someone to forgive or be forgiven. “The loss of health creates one of many grieving experiences. Each person responds in the uniqueness of his or her spirituality. The resources of family, friends, faith and social groups are very important in providing a compassionate and loving presence,” says Roger Boss, Staff Chaplain at St. John’s Hospital and Clinics, Springfield, Missouri. “Faith and hope are the greatest assets of the patient. Listening is the greatest asset of the caregiver.”

Because addressing spiritual issues can make such a difference in an individual’s experience of illness — and often in health outcomes as well — weaving spirituality into medical education has become a priority among integrative medicine leaders. Today two-thirds of the nation’s 125 medical schools now include courses on spirituality and faith, up from just three in 1992.

Attention to spirituality is also important for health care providers themselves. Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, Founder and Director of The Institute for the Study of Health and Illness (ISHI), established a program, “Finding Meaning in Medicine,” to help physicians embrace the original values and impulse for service that led them into the healing arts. “Medicine is a practice and a spiritual path,” Remen said. “Remembering this deep meaning is what keeps us from burning out, is what keeps us alive. We must always remember that we serve life not because it is broken, but because it is holy.”

Similarly, the Inner Life Renewal Program at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing helps health care professionals rediscover their purpose, spirit and life’s work as healers.

Through its commitment to return the soul to medicine, integrative medicine will continue to develop innovative and meaningful ways to address the fundamental connection between mind, body, and spirit in health and healing.