Spirituality and Medicine: A Surprising Pairing Can your doctor discuss spirituality with you?

I did not think of the importance of religion or spirituality in my early years of practice. Moving to Alabama and working with religious-minded patients made me realize that faith and spirituality are essential in healing.

Features of spirituality include a quest for meaning and purpose, transcendence (i.e., the sense that being human is more than simple material existence), connectedness (e.g., with others, nature, or the divine), and values (e.g., love, compassion, and justice).

65.2% of physicians report that they believe in God; 51.2% report themselves as religious, and 24.8% as spiritual. Eight out of ten patients want physicians to ask about their spiritual beliefs in at least some circumstances, and it begs the question of why spiritual health is not treated as an essential component of a person’s whole health.

Some studies show a better outcome in morbidity and mortality for religious people. Why? They don’t share good genes, better health-promoting behaviors, or better social support. Religious and spiritual practices engender positive emotions such as hope, love, contentment, and forgiveness and limit negative emotions such as hostility. Positive emotions, in turn, can lead to decreased activation of the sympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This response has psychological effects (e.g., less anxiety) and physiological effects (e.g., decreased blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption) that may lead to better health.

However, like any factor that may affect health, religious involvement and spirituality may adversely affect an individual—for example, encouraging avoidance or discontinuance of traditional treatments, avoiding vaccines, and going through religious abuse in certain religions. A religious person may have high expectations and hope that can underestimate the prognosis. In psychiatric patients, unhealthy belief systems (e.g., religious delusions) can adversely affect health.

While 80% of US medical schools offer training in spiritual care, most students don’t receive it because it’s an elective. Doctors do not discuss religion routinely and few will bring spiritual discussions in clinical settings.

What are your thoughts, and how have you connected your religion and spirituality in your practice? Should your doctor discuss religion or spirituality with you?

You can think or may not reply to me as it’s a personal preference.

Thanks for reading.

Tarak Vasavada, MD