For years, functional-medicine physicians have been lauding the effectiveness of a whole-person approach to patient care: attending to mind, body, and spirit rather than just treating physical symptoms. Now, researchers at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital offer new support for the spiritual element of that strategy, arguing in a 2022 JAMA study that healthier outcomes result when practitioners consider their patients’ spirituality.

The Importance of Spirituality

“Spirituality is important to many patients as they think about their health,” says study coauthor Tyler VanderWeele, PhD. “Focusing on spirituality in healthcare means caring for the whole person, not just their disease.”

And spirituality extends well beyond organized religion, accord­ing to the International Consensus Conference on Spiritual Care in Health Care. For the purpose of the JAMA study, ­researchers ­con­sidered the myriad ways in which an individ­ual pursues meaning, connection, or transcendence — including via family, community, and nature.

Reviewing 586 studies published between January 2000 and April 2022, VanderWeele and his col­leagues found that healthy people who participated regularly in a spiritual community were less likely than nonparticipants to suffer from depression and substance-use problems; they were also more likely to live longer.

“Focusing on spirituality in healthcare means caring for the whole person, not just their disease.”

These results, they argue, suggest that practitioners should discuss their patients’ spiritual beliefs not just as part of a treatment protocol for a serious illness but when consulting on overall health.

“Our findings indicate that attention to spirituality in serious illness and in health should be a vital part of future whole-person-centered care,” says lead author Tracy ­Balboni, MD, MPH. “The results should stimulate more national ­discussion and progress on how ­spirituality can be incorporated into this type of value-sensitive care.”

To incorporate this mode of care into a clinical environment, the authors recommend recognizing in future research, programs, and community assessments that spirituality is a social factor associated with health — and increasing general awareness of the ­spirituality–health link.

Eventually, they’d like to see specially trained interdisciplinary teams of spiritual caregivers offering their services in hospitals and clinics.

“Overlooking spirituality leaves patients feeling disconnected from the healthcare system and the clinicians trying to care for them,” explains senior author Howard Koh, MD, MPH. “Integrating spirituality into care can help each person have a better chance of reaching complete well-being and their highest attainable standard of health.”

This article originally appeared as “Research on Health Outcomes: Spirituality Matters” written by Craig Cox in the December 2022 issue of Experience Life.

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