Is there a relationship between spirituality and health? Assistant Professor of Psychiatry Mary Lynn Dell thinks so and, with the help of a grant from the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), she will establish a course at the School of Medicine to examine the nexus between the two.
"Endorsing the connection between spirituality and healing as part of the curriculum is an affirmation that this is an important part of the patient's life," says Dell, who is also an ordained minister. "It is not only okay but desirable that the physician be aware of religious practices. Talking with patients about their concerns and how they plan to cope with their illness is just as important as providing the best medical care."
Preliminary clinical research has shown that spiritual beliefs become even more important to individuals when they experience illness. Seventy percent of patients surveyed by USA Today and Time magazine believe spiritual faith and prayer can aid in recovery, and 64 percent believe physicians should address spiritual issues as part of their care and even pray with patients if they request it.
The course, which Dell will inaugurate this spring, will explore the fundamentals of religious systems, different religious views on suffering and death, family differences in religious strength, and how to work with religious professionals.
"Just as our students need to understand the role of science and technology in the care of their patients," says Jonas Shulman, dean of medical education and student affairs, "they must also recognize that the patient's emotional status, philosophy, religious beliefs, and spiritual needs play an important role in their view of health, disease, and, in part, death."
Cryosurgery, a procedure that uses liquid nitrogen to freeze tumors, has previously been used to treat skin and prostate cancer. Now Emory University Hospital is one of the few medical centers in the nation to apply the technique to patients with liver cancer. Often, it is their last hope for recovery.
One such patient is Elizabeth Morris, a seventy-six-year-old Georgia woman who underwent a year of chemotherapy only to discover the four tumors on her liver were unaffected. Previously, patients who did not respond to chemotherapy had no other treatment options and did not survive more than three years after diagnosis.
"Because Mrs. Morris had multiple unresectable [inoperable] tumors, and because chemotherapy failed to help her, we felt cryosurgery was a good treatment option," says Emory surgical oncologist Charles Staley. "When patients have multiple tumors on both sides of the liver, 70 percent of the time traditional surgery will not help them. There simply would not be enough liver tissue left to function adequately. Cryosurgery involves much less removal of the normal liver than traditional surgery."
Although cryosurgery has been in use since the 1960s, it has not been used to treat liver cancer because there was no reliable way to monitor the exact placement of the instruments that delivered the liquid nitrogen. In 1986, a study showed that ultrasound done in the operating room could be used to identify the number and position of the tumors as well as to track the freezing process. Follow-up studies of cryosurgery in animals and humans showed significant therapeutic promise, and doctors have recently begun to use it as a standard treatment for advanced liver cancer.
"I was told that patients with my kind of cancer do not live very long," said Morris, who recently celebrated her fifty-sixth wedding anniversary. "I had the surgery in January 1996, and I have gone back for two CAT scans . . . and they haven't found any more cancer. I have always been healthy, but I never really appreciated what a blessing good health is. I'm feeling wonderful now."
Executive Vice President for Health Affairs and Director of the Robert W. Woodruff Health Sciences Center Michael M.E. Johns, has been appointed to a four-year-term on the National Advisory Research Resources Council. The council reviews research grant applications to the National Center for Research Resources of the National Institutes of Health and provides a forum for the discussion of broad policy questions pertaining to health-related research in the United States.
--compiled by Andrew W.M. Beierle
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