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Spiritual Life Can Positively Affect Health

Spiritual Life Can Positively Affect Health

A patient’s spiritual life can positively affect their health and experience with serious illness, new research indicates.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, evaluated nearly 700 articles published over 20 years in a comprehensive systematic review concerning spirituality and religion as it relates to health outcomes in both healthy patients and those facing serious illnesses.

“There’s a strong body of evidence about the importance of religion and spirituality, particularly for patients with serious illness,” said George Fitchett, DMin, PhD, director of research at the Department of Religion, Health and Human Values at RUSH University Medical Center and co-author of the study. “The rigor of the systematic review was really breathtaking.”

The study evaluated both how spirituality and religion helped patients cope with serious illness, as well as the associations of spirituality with health outcomes in healthy people, using a panel of experts in spirituality and health care.

Key takeaways

The panel developed eight evidence statements and three major takeaways pertaining to spirituality when treating serious illness, as well as eight statements and three major takeaways regarding spirituality in healthy people.

When dealing with serious illness, the panel recommended the following:

  • Incorporating spiritual care into care for patients with serious illnesses
  • Incorporating spiritual care education into training for those caring for people with serious illnesses
  • Including specialty practitioners of spiritual care (such as hospital chaplains) in care of patients with serious illness.

“Spiritual care needs to be routinely incorporated into care for serious illness, and spiritual care specialists should be part of the care for patients for serious illness,” Fitchett said. “We’ve never seen recommendations like that before in the health care research sphere.”

Recommendations regarding outcomes

The panel also made recommendations regarding outcomes for healthy patients, including:

  • Adding patient-centered and evidence-based approaches regarding beneficial associations of religious/spiritual community participation to improve patient and population health outcomes
  • Increasing awareness among health professionals of evidence for protective health associations of religious/spiritual community participation
  • Recognizing spirituality as a social factor associated with health in research, community assessments and program implementation.

“If you’re doing research about factors associated with health and you’re not paying attention to spirituality, you’re actually missing something important,” Fitchett said. “And all of this may be even more important for racial and ethnic minority patients. So particularly if you’re concerned about health care equity disparities you need to be attentive there.”

More research recommended

The study’s experts included physicians, nurses, chaplains and clergy, social workers, mental health practitioners, patient and family advocates, medical ethicists, and experts in health care systems, health policy and public health. It was led by researchers at Harvard Medical School and T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Fitchett noted the importance of future research, focusing on specific religions and ethnic groups, as well as working to develop interventions that may be most effective in integrating spiritual care into health care practice.

“Fine-tuning our understanding of the religious and spiritual issues that our patients with serious illness may be facing will be incredibly important,” he said. “I think that may be a scenario for continued research.”