Healthcare professionals rarely discuss religion, spirituality in ICU

Although many patients and their families view religion or spirituality as important near the end of life, few surrogate decision-makers and healthcare professionals discuss these considerations during family meetings in intensive care units, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

To assess how often these conversations take place, researchers analyzed audio-record conversations between 651 surrogate decision-makers who had "a relatively high degree of religiosity" and 441 healthcare professionals in 13 intensive care units across the country. 

"The discussion of religious or spiritual considerations occurred in fewer than 20 percent of goals-of-care conferences in intensive care units, and healthcare professionals rarely explored the patient's or family's religious or spiritual ideas," wrote researchers, who were led by Natalie C. Ernecoff, clinical research, Investigation and Systems Modeling of Acute Illness, Department of Critical Care Medicine, University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

But in an accompanying opinion piece about the study's findings, lead commentator Tracy A. Balboni, M.D., of the Department of Psychosocial Oncology and Palliative Care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, who was not involved in the study, questioned the definitions researchers used to denote a religious or spiritual theme.

"Understanding the definition is critical to interpreting these frequencies and placing them in proper context, particularly because the de facto definition may leave spiritual concepts unidentified," they write.

Although clinicians may be reluctant to discuss religious and spiritual beliefs with their patients, three recent studies shed light on how faith can impact cancer patients' mental, social and physical well-being, FierceHealthcare reported in August. The studies indicate there is a significant link between religion, spirituality and patient outcomes but variability on how they relate to the different aspects of health.

To learn more:
- read the study abstract
- read the commentary on the study