Spiritual Concerns: Painful for Patient & Doctor?

There is a spiritual and material quality in the care of sick people; too great efficiency in material details may hamper progress.

William Mayo

Faith is an unfailing stream of energy.

Sir William Osler

Doctors are real good at performing procedures, ordering tests, writing prescriptions, and completing chart notes. Primary care doctors often refer patients to specialists to get expert backup for complex problems.  Cardiologists for heart ailments, Pulmonologists for lung problems, Nephrologists for kidney disease, Rheumatologists for joint afflictions. Sometimes doctors even refer a patient to a  Chaplain for spiritual concerns.

Can we really separate a person into two components: diseases and emotional distress? Body separate from mind? Spiritual concerns affect illness as much or more than drug use, smoking or alcohol use. Healthcare providers routinely ask about substance abuse, yet they altogether avoid inquiry into spiritual concerns.

Is spiritual history unimportant or do doctors avoid these issues for fear of getting too emotionally involved with a patient? Here are a few key study statistics that
show just how important spiritual discussion is for patients:

*  More than 90% of people in the United States believe in a Higher Being.

*  94% of patients regard their spiritual health and their physical health as equally

*  Most patients want their spiritual needs met and would welcome an inquiry regarding their religious and spiritual needs.

*  In a study of 157 hospitalized adults with moderate to high levels of pain, prayer
was second only to pain medications (76% vs 82%) as the most common self-reported means of controlling pain.

*  A majority of nearly 850 studies of mental health and 350 studies of physical
health have found a direct relationship between religious involvement and
spirituality and better health outcomes.

*  The goals of medicine are “to cure disease when possible and to relieve suffering
always.” Surely then, spiritual concerns should be addressed by doctors.

It is clearly time for physicians and other primary care providers to stop avoiding a
patient’s spiritual concerns by skipping the subject altogether or delegating it entirely to a Chaplain.

Question: Do you believe doctors are neglectful with patients’ spiritual concerns? Do healthcare providers generally seem to avoid discussing the deep stuff?


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Ehman JW, Ott BB, Short TH, Ciampa RC, Hansen-Flaschen J. Do patients want physicians to inquire about their spiritual or religious beliefs if they become gravely ill? Arch Intern Med. 1999;159:1803-1806.

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Mueller PS et al. Religious Involvement, Spirituality, and Medicine: Implications for Clinical Practice. Mayo Clin Proc. 2001;76:1225-1235.

Post SG, Puchalski CM, Larson DB. Physicians and patient spirituality: professional boundaries, competency, and ethics. Ann Intern Med. 2000;132:578-583.