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Are doctors meeting the spiritual needs of patients?


blog mccray faith 3

Cancer patients seeking treatment for their physical healing also expect to receive care for their souls. However, according to a study commissioned by CTCA, patients surveyed said that they are not getting the spiritual support they desire.

Spiritual support ranked high among the concerns of patients and caregivers seeking an “integrated care experience,” according to the study, The Cancer Experience: A National Study of Patients and Caregivers. Yet, fewer than 20 percent of patients received that support from their doctors.

In addition, many cancer patients and their caregivers across United States do not receive psychological counseling, nutritional counseling and naturopathic medicine in their treatment. Of the patients and caregivers whose hospital offered an integrative approach, only about half were completely satisfied with that care.

The spiritual needs of patients and caregivers are important and should be met. Yet patients tell me they rarely have an opportunity to talk with their doctors about their spiritual needs. Because we live in a secular society, most doctors focus on the physical and ignore the spiritual side of healing.

Historically, medical practitioners and the faith community have experienced somewhat of a strained relationship. Because of a lack of comfort, doctors and clergy have not engaged with each other in meaningful ways. Still today, myths and phobias on both sides have created a disconnect and, in some cases, distrust.

In my 18 years at CTCA outside Chicago I have tried to bridge the gap between doctors and clergy so they can work together harmoniously on behalf of the patient. I encourage our doctors to look for cues from patients and family members needing spiritual support. Those include:

  • Signs of depression
  • A feeling a loss of control
  • Psychological distress

If patients are not believers or are not interested in spiritual support, their doctors should not force it on them. Respecting a patient’s right to choose is critical. But it is equally critical to get support to those patients who need and want it.

I’ve found that doctors avoid discussions of spirituality because they are of a different faith than their patients or because they don’t ascribe to any particular faith. Doctors must make an effort to reach out to patients who have different beliefs than their own.

Research suggests that the spiritual element of care can help patients heal. Prayer, in particular, leads to optimism, reduces stress and can bolster the immune system. At CTCA, we give all patients the option of including spiritual care in their treatment plan. The spiritual support teams at each of our five hospitals work hand in hand with the medical oncologists, registered nurses, naturopathic oncology providers, registered dietitians, nurse care managers and other integrative oncology clinicians.

A holistic approach to cancer treatment acknowledges the spiritual needs of patients and gets them the support they need. Learn more about spiritual support at CTCA.

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