Course examines spiritual,
religious dimensions to health

For most people, religion and spirituality are personal journeys. But what happens when one's beliefs and value systems clash with the need for health care or when spiritual reflection and rededication come at a time when we are most vulnerable-during the course of a life-threatening or life-altering illness?

Researchers and health care practitioners are finding increasingly that religion and spirituality play a more significant role in disease outcomes than once thought. James Pace, an associate professor in the School of Nursing, has students examine issues surrounding the intersection of religious/spiritual beliefs and the field of nursing in the elective course, "Spirituality, Religion and Nursing."

"Over the years, health care has splintered the person into parts; I think we're seeing the pendulum swinging back to the need to integrate the whole person in terms of health," said Pace. "More and more research is being done on what religion and spirituality can actually do for people's health. How can we measure what religious faith and prayer do for health care outcomes?

"In this age of managed care, outcome orientation and saving costs," he continued, we've really seen that spirituality and religious practices are much more important to the care of the individual and the outcome of their health then we ever thought possible."

On a more basic level, said Pace, nurses deal with religious issues every day in their practices, where they are often asked to honor religious beliefs and practices in the delivery of care. For example, one faith tradition requires 30 uninterrupted minutes of prayer in the afternoon. "If you have a person who's on IV therapy, who's receiving antibiotics or pain medications and has to be constantly attended by a nurse," said Pace, "that nurse needs to make allowances for prayer time being honored, yet also deliver all the therapies and treatments that are necessary."

Pace structures his course so that students gain firsthand knowledge of other religious traditions. He asks them to attend a service, meeting or religious class that's totally unfamiliar to them. "It's always interesting to see how someone enjoyed it or was taken aback by it or felt like the differences added to their experience," he said. He gives students a detailed list of questions to answer after their field experiences: Who is there? What are their races, ages, orientations, interactions? Who are the laity, the clergy, the leaders, the followers, the participants? What are the prayers? Who is the God or deity? What are the images of the sacred? What is the goal of the meeting, service or worship? How is "transcendence" achieved?

Students also are asked to examine their own faiths and spiritual beliefs. "I don't think that you can effectively deal with other people's spiritual selves until you've really examined your own spiritual make-up-what you believe about the meaning in life, the meaning of life; how you discover what is beyond the purely physical," said Pace.

Toward the end of the course, Pace also has students present case studies. They tell how they dealt with a health care delivery predicament that stemmed from religious beliefs or practices, what the course has taught them about the principles behind the case and how they would have handled a situation differently, given the knowledge they have acquired in the course.

With a half-time appointment as a certified adult nurse practitioner at AID Atlanta, Pace contends with life, death and spiritual issues daily. He has found working with people with HIV/AIDS "an incredible watershed for the spiritual.

"Spirituality is the base from which all other parts of a person are derived," said Pace. "To intervene appropriately as their health care professional or advanced practice nurse, you have to become a part of that person's [spiritual] journey and life."

-Stacey Jones

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