The Importance of Spirituality in Health Care

Contributed by: Jane Sandwood

“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul” – Rachel Remen, MD

In a fascinating analysis on the role of spirituality in health care, author, Dr. Christina Puchalski, notes that “The technological advances of the past century tended to change the focus of medicine from a caring, service oriented model to a technological, cure-oriented model.” However, in the past few decades, researchers and physicians have sought to balance technological advances with a holistic view of health, attempting to reclaim medicine’s spiritual roots as a result of the realization that until recent times, spirituality was an important part of health care.

In her study, Dr. Puchalski advocates for the the importance of physician practicing compassionate presence; that is to say, being fully present for patients and supporting them through their stress, pain and suffering. By being attentive to a patient’s spiritual history and interests, incorporating spiritual practices if this would alleviate a patient’s suffering, and simply listening to a patient’s fears and hopes, physicians can be of great help, since in essence, they are exercising a quality that all vocational professionals should express: compassion. 

Scientific Findings on Spirituality
Study after study has shown the important link between spirituality and physical and mental health. It is vital at this point to distinguish between spirituality and organized religion. Spirituality is a much wider concept which rests on the idea that humanity is connected by a greater power or life force; that life is meaningful, and that each of us has a purpose.

Just one study, published in The International Journal of Indian Psychology, found that people who are more spiritual, who feel that their lives have purpose and meaning, are generally happier than their non-spiritual counterparts. Other studies have shown that those who take part in regular spiritual practice live longer; are better able to cope with illness, pain and stress; and have better health outcomes. 

What Advantages can Be Gained by Incorporating Spirituality in Health Care?
As stated by Dr. Puchalski, spirituality can help patients in many ways. It can be a factor in how a patient understands their disease, it can be vital for patient when it comes to coping with an unfavorable diagnosis, and it can affect their level of distress.

Health care systems across the globe may still be a long way away from an ideal state in which physicians have the time and training required to fully appreciate the role played by spirituality in the recovery or coping mechanisms of each patient, but doctors and other health care workers can do their best to acknowledge the suffering and needs of their patients; clearly, this extends to more than physical needs, with numerous bodies of research showing the inexorable link between physical, mental, and spiritual health.