Medical school class to examine spirituality and health connection

The connection between spirituality and health has long fascinated physicians and patients alike. Thanks to a new research grant, an Emory fauclty member will probe the mysteries of that elusive connection in a new medical school course.

Mary Lynn Dell, assistant professor of psychiatry in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the School of Medicine, has received an award from the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR) to fund a course for medical students that will examine the connection between spirituality and health. Emory was one of five schools in the country selected from 20 medical schools that submitted proposed courses.

"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," said Dell. "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. Sometimes the patient's overall well being is the thing that falls through the cracks."

Dell, an ordained minister and psychiatrist, will begin teaching the course to second-year medical students next spring. She includes in the syllabus fundamentals of major religious systems, different religious views on suffering and death, religious issues regarding abuse, history taking, how faith can be used, generic faith, family differences in religious strength and how to work with religious professionals.

According to a recent release by the NIHR, a Gallup Poll shows Americans are highly religious. Ninety-five percent of the U.S. population believe in God, 57 percent pray daily and 42 percent attend worship services weekly. Clinical research has begun to indicate that spiritual beliefs become even more important to individuals when they experience illness. Patient spirituality has been found to influence not only illness prevention, coping, treatment and care, but also how patients define and view their illness as well. "Just as our students need to understand the role of science nd technology in the care of their patients," said Jonas Shulman, dean of Medical Education and Student Affairs at the School of Medicine, "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. Failure to pay attention to these needs may severely limit their ability to form the type of patient-doctor bond that is required of a `truly' excellent physician."

Funding for the Faith and Medicine Curricular Awards is provided by the NIHR with the support of the John Templeton Foundation.

--Kathi Ovnic

Return to the September 30, 1996 contents page