The role of spirituality in health care


By Eric Nelson | | Twitter

LOS ALTOS, CA, March 31, 2014 – In 2002, Dr. Donald Moss, then president of the Association for Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback (AAPB), decided to devote his entire annual meeting to exploring “the role of spirituality in health care.” Given the growing interest in the subject at that time, this seemed like a good idea – just not one that was unanimously embraced. One member of the association resigned immediately following the conference.

“His point of view was that the word ‘spirit’ or the word ‘religion’ shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same sentence with ‘science,’” said Moss during a recent conversation, “which I think is a very archaic attitude.”

Times have changed.

With more than 75 percent of all medical schools in the U.S. having integrated spirituality into their training programs – up from just three schools 20 years ago – it’s safe to say that this once marginalized subject has made it into the mainstream of modern medicine. What remains to be seen, however, is what role spirituality might play going forward, whether it be bit player or featured star.

Moss points out that science-based investigations of the confluence between spirituality and health are not particularly new, citing the work of 19th-century scientist Francis Galton, cousin of Charles Darwin and father of modern statistical analysis who, in 1872, wrote an article probing the health effects of intercessory prayer.

“Here’s a man who was certainly respected by scientists, and he thought it was an interesting question,” said Moss. “He even said, since so much of the world’s population believes that prayer is effective, isn’t that in itself some evidence?”

According to Christina Puchalski, professor of medicine and health sciences at George Washington School of Medicine and director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health (GWISH), the number of people asking these kinds of questions began to drop right about the time Galton died.

“Spirituality has been foundational in health care for centuries but became overshadowed by early 20th-century technological advances in diagnosis and treatment,” wrote Puchalski in a recent article. “Though these advances were dramatic and resulted in countless lives saved, the scientific focus moved the culture of medicine away from a holistic, service-oriented model to a technological, reductionist model.”

Thanks to the efforts of people like Puchalski and Moss, now head of the College of Mind-Body Medicine at San Francisco’s Saybrook University, this trend is changing, with an increasing number of medical researchers and practitioners aiming to, in Puchalski’s words, “reclaim medicine’s spiritual roots.”

Looking beyond the medical mainstream, one group that Moss singles out as a key contributor to this reclamation process are Christian Scientists.

Christian Science, like certain other denominations, has cultivated prayer for healing,” he said. “So, even though I like it when the studies show that the effects of prayer are not narrowly limited by denomination, I also think it’s important to pay attention to people who actually cultivate the practice of prayer for healing, whether it’s a spiritual healer, a Christian Scientist or anyone else.”

It’s this capacity for healing that Moss tries to foster in his graduate students as well, regardless of their spiritual or mind-body practice.

“I hope we’re creating a place in our school where people will come with the spirit and the capacity for healing, not just in their scientific studies, but in the interpersonal relationships that unfold among the students and with the faculty,” he said. “I prefer not to pass judgment on the nature of the [healing] but to welcome it.”

Even so, many obstacles remain when it comes to integrating spirituality with conventional medicine.

“I think it’s healthy when religion or spirituality, or both, come back into the medical practice,” said Moss. “We have to be aware of our patient’s spiritual needs and religious needs.” But he also notes the difficulty in getting doctors to dial in at this deeper level without creating an uneasy situation, either for themselves or their patients.

In his 2002 address to the AAPB, Moss suggested four questions to help doctors bridge this divide without requiring them to become experts in any particular spiritual or religious practice, noting, “We do a favor to our patients when we open a door for them to express themselves about their spiritual concerns, doubts, questions and needs.”

(1) Is faith, religion or spirituality important to you?

(2) Has faith been important at other times in your life?

(3) Do you have someone to talk to about religious matters?

(4) Would you like to explore religious matters with someone?

Even though spirituality has yet to be universally accepted as an essential element of our health care system, its continued utilization by an expanding segment of the population and growing if gradual integration by an increasing number of medical professionals is encouraging.

And what about those who continue to find a wholly spiritual approach to health care sufficient to meet their needs?

“There’s a place for active forms of spiritual healing,” said Moss. “Whether it’s Reiki, or therapeutic touch or Christian Science healing, the direct role for healing – spiritual healing – I think is very important.”

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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  • Bill Goode

    I don’t buy this for a second. But this idea could be stretched in some fashion. It depends on what you call “spirituality”. If you consider hope and prayer to be spirituality, then this might be true. But such a concept of spirituality ignores the key element in healing, which is the human spirit itself.

    Many doctors may believe they do the healing. They may set broken bones and sew up cuts. They may prescribe various drugs and / or vitamins. But it’s not the doctors or the drugs or even the vitamins and minerals that do the actual healing. Drugs don’t do anything but kill bacteria & viruses and such, which may well make the actual healing more difficult. Even vitamins and minerals are only the building blocks for healing. As a doctor sets a broken bone or sews up a cut, it is still the fluid systems in the body that carry the building blocks for healing to the area to be healed.

    But even the building blocks and the fluid systems in the body need some direction from some where to carry out the actual healing. Evidence of this is when an individual sprains his ankle, the ankle swells up. That swelling is the action of the fluid systems, carrying nutrients to the injured area. Most doctors would tell a patient to apply ice to a swelled are to reduce the swelling. Yet it is the swelling that is part of the healing action of fluids flowing to the area. But what is directing the fluids to the injured area?

    Until the human spirit, that resides within the body, is acknowledged as the source of healing, doctors will be missing the boat. That includes all 75% of the medical schools that Dr Moss claims now deal in hope and prayer. I would suggest the medical profession become just a little more causitive and consider what it is that makes the human body function and heal itself in the first place. It’s the human spirit itself, within the body.

  • Skeptic

    Most interesting piece Eric. Bill, I believe “spirituality” does include the human spirit. It includes all the good in human thought. And I believe it goes further by including a higher power known as the divine Spirit. It’s reported that the prophet Jesus said, “It is the spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life.” I believe what Jesus taught here was that there is a divine spirit that governs all aspects of the human spirit. There is a higher power at work in all aspects of humanity and the human body. Theologians call this spiritual power “God.”

    • Eric Nelson

      Thanks “Skeptic” – well said.

  • Steve Price

    Thanks, Eric. How can the effect of spiritual activity be measured by science-based investigation? The question is moving from does it work but how it works.

    • Eric Nelson

      Answering your question from a technical standpoint, spiritual cause-and-effect is often described in terms of “correlation” instead of “cause.” Most (all?) scientists would never say that, for instance, prayer CAUSED an individual’s recovery… however, there is a CORRELATION between when they prayed and when they got better. I think we’re still a long way off from describing, for instance, how prayer works. Even so, those who have experienced its effects will likely continue down that path without waiting around for any other form of validation.