Training helps doctors talk to patients about spiritual needs

Providers who receive education and training are twice as likely to help address patients' spiritual needs.

Doctors who get training on how to appropriately engage patients about spirituality are twice as likely to regularly conduct spiritual assessments, according to a new study.

The study examined the attitudes and practices of 520 care providers over a one-year period as they related to the integration of spirituality into patient care, according to an announcement by Adventist Health System, which helped conduct the survey.

The study, called Faith in Practice, surveyed the experiences of physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants in Adventist facilities in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois in assessing patients' spiritual needs. Participants had varying faiths, and some had no religious affiliation whatsoever.

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Other studies have shown faith can impact patients' mental, social and physical well-being, with a link between religion, spirituality and patient outcomes.

The Aventist study found a majority of providers are willing to access patients’ spiritual needs and that those who receive training on how to engage patients on issues of spirituality are twice as likely to regularly conduct spiritual assessments.

The study was conducted by Adventist, one of the largest faith-based healthcare systems in the country, and Duke University's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. Part of the study included introducing practical strategies to apply spiritual care in outpatient settings.

"The study makes clear that physicians are willing to address the spiritual needs of patients, and that education and training programs can significantly increase the integration of spirituality in outpatient medical practices," Harold G. Koenig, M.D., the Duke center’s director, said in the announcement.

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With education and training, the study found significant increases in how frequently providers prayed with patients, were willing to pray with patients, shared their faith with patients and encouraged patients' own religious faith.

During the study, providers asked patients whether they had a faith-based support system to help them in times of need, whether they had religious beliefs that might influence medical decisions and whether they had any other spiritual concerns they wanted addressed. 

Patients were assigned spiritual care coordinators who would then address concerns or were connected with a chaplain for support.