In JAMA, Spirituality and Population Health

Published on: 

Evidence shows aiding patients' spiritual needs improves their health, but few doctors address them.

Long before the world had licensed physicians, it had healers. Finding meaning or connecting to a higher power was an essential part of getting well, or facing the reality that full health might not be possible.

Authors wrote in JAMA that as the population ages, neglect of the spiritual side is a missed opportunity to improve care and achieve better results at a population level. Tyler J. VanderWeele, PhD; Tracy A. Balboni, MD, MPH; and Howard K. Koh, MD, MPH, cited both opinion polls and recent evidence to show that the patients want more attention paid to their spiritual needs, and that the healthcare system would be wise to acknowledge: when patients pray, they heal.

For cancer patients, whose ranks will grow in the years ahead, evidence shows that supporting spiritual needs increases the odds of transitioning to hospice care. A highly cited study of palliative, published in the New England of Medicine, produced survival benefits so profound that if they involved a drug, it would be blockbuster.


But the JAMA authors wrote that even though many patients are interested in spiritual care, few receive it. While 80% of medical schools offer training in spiritual care, it is typically an elective, and young doctors are not required to receiving training. The disconnect is real: the authors cited a study that found a connection with God was the second-most important factor for cancer patients in their care, and perceived as the least important care factor among their doctors and nurses.

Beyond these disconnects, the authors noted that most research in the United States assumes patients are Christian, and more work is needed to reflect the growing diversity of faiths among those seeking care.

“More attention to such spiritual matters could bring medicine closer to the World Health Organization’s longstanding definition of health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity,’” the authors wrote.


VanderWeele TJ, Balbeni TA, Koh HK. Health and spirituality [published online July 27, 2017.] JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.8136.