5 Spiritual Concepts Western Medicine Must Embrace

A call to include basic spiritual concepts in the assessment and treatment of patients in order to provide care that truly honors the whole person. Even medical personnel who are not religious or spiritual themselves should be aware of the impact of spiritual issues on health, particularly the five concepts mentioned.


5 Spiritual Concepts Western Medicine Must Embrace

In September 2011, in recognition of National Wellness Week, the Center for Integrated Health Solutions published a list of 10 recommended domains for promoting "whole health, wellness and resiliency." This list includes the expected support for healthy eating, exercise and stress management, but somewhat surprisingly, also cites "spiritual beliefs and practices" as an important aspect of health.

During the last century, as the science and technology of medicine advanced exponentially, spirituality became less and less a consideration for nursing and medical practitioners working with ill patients. In fact, addressing spiritual issues has even been looked upon as inappropriate in some medical settings.

But there is now substantial scientific evidence supporting the important role of spirituality in health and illness and suggesting that medical providers might be causing harm to their patients by overlooking these factors. Here are 5 spiritual concepts that should be introduced as part of routine medical care for the optimum health of all patients:

1. Prayer

Numerous studies have been conducted over the past few decades showing the power of prayer to improve outcome from serious illnesses. These studies conducted by research organizations such as Duke University and Spindrift Research have even shown the effectiveness of prayer performed at a distance by individuals who do not know the patient.

2. Unconditional love

Researchers at Yale University have found that love can help protect our hearts. Other studies have demonstrated that the experience of genuine love can speed healing and improve the functioning of the immune system.

3. Forgiveness

Following along with the practice of genuine love, forgiveness has been shown to contribute to emotional, mental and physical wellbeing. Those who make a practice of regularly forgiving others enjoy better health outcomes than those who have a tendency to hold resentment and anger toward others.

4. Meaning

When all of life, including illness and loss, is viewed as having meaning and purpose, the seemingly negative events can be better tolerated. In fact, the outcome of an illness or adverse health event is likely to be worse if the patient is unable to perceive meaning in the experience.

5. Spiritual practice

Studies have shown that individuals who attend church regularly live as many as 7 years longer than those who do not attend church. Other spiritual practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer and contemplation have all been associated with a decrease in negative health events and an increase in well being.
Medical training is necessarily steeped in science and rational thought. Many nurses and other medical providers may have distanced themselves from spirituality because it seemed in conflict with the scientific method that has informed their professional training.

But the evidence is mounting that spirituality can no longer be ignored in the hospital or medical office. Even those nurses and physicians who do not value spiritual concepts in their own lives cannot justify omitting them entirely from their assessment and treatment of patients. It is time for the medical profession to wake up and recognize that the new frontier of medicine in this century lies in spirituality and spiritual energy.

Karen Wyatt, MD is a retired hospice and family physician who now writes and teaches on the integration of spirituality and health during all stages of life. During her medical training she greatly admired the nurses she worked with who truly provided compassionate, loving care to patients. Her own healing presence was shaped by observing those nurses at work and emulating their kindness.

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1,341 Posts

I would love to see somme citations to support your case.....what studies? Also in the title the word must is pretty strong....you may wish to change it to "may wish to consider"......

My personal opinion is that most of what you have written is bollocks with a few good tidbits interspersed :)

Nothing personal, just one mans opinion.....

SummitRN, BSN, RN

2 Articles; 1,567 Posts

Specializes in ICU + Infection Prevention. Has 11 years experience.

What a coincidence. I have worked with Dr. Wyatt. She is a wonderful person and provider.

That said, I have some reservations about this post. I would love to see some of these studies mentioned. I also wonder how these claims for the necessity of prayer and spirituality can be addressed with a patient or provider who is atheistic or non-spiritual in their beliefs. The "musts" in this post do not seem to be universally practicable.


1,341 Posts

I am sure she is awesome. But as you said, anecdotes are not gonna cut it. Lets see the peer reviewed studies por favor

Specializes in Geriatrics, Home Health. Has 10 years experience.

Unfortunately, too many people see studies that show the power of prayer as permission to preach to patients, whether the patients want it or not.

One study on prayer, which examined whether the patients knew they were being prayed for, showed that some patients declined when they were prayed for. Apparently, they thought that if they needed prayer, they were beyond help.


1,341 Posts

Boo. Here is the NYT article that throws doubt on the idea of prayer. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html?pagewanted=all

Hate to say it but that article is guilty of the same anecdotal rambling. Mentions a lot of numbers and a lot of studies but never gives the titles of those studies or any references....

I think we all know that the NYT is not considered a bastion of scientific knowledge nor is it known for its neutrality and accuracy......


183 Posts

Here's a link to a Cochrane review of studies into whether prayer affects health outcomes. It's not a subscription site, so you should be able to read it without being on your hospital or school network. But if anybody has any trouble linking to it, I've pasted in the "plain language summary."


"Intercessory prayer is one of the oldest and most common interventions used with the intention of alleviating illness and promoting good health. It is practised by many faiths and involves a person or group setting time aside to petition God (or a god) on behalf of another who is in some kind of need. This review examines whether there is a difference in outcome for people who are prayed for by name whilst ill, or recovering from an illness or operation, and those who are not. Both groups of people still received their usual treatment for their illness. Ten trials were found which randomised a total of 7807 people. The majority of these compared prayer (for someone to become well) plus treatment as usual with treatment as usual without prayer. One trial had two prayer groups, comparing participants who knew they were being prayed for with those who did not. Another trial prayed retroactively, randomising people a month to 6 years after they were admitted to hospital. Each trial had people with different illnesses. These included leukaemia, heart problems, blood infection, alcohol abuse and psychological or rheumatic disease. In one trial people were judged to be at high or low risk of death and placed in relevant groups.

Overall, there was no significant difference in recovery from illness or death between those prayed for and those not prayed for. In the trials that measured post-operative or other complications, indeterminate and bad outcomes, or readmission to hospital, no significant differences between groups were also found. However, in the trial that differentiated between high or low risk of death, people at high risk of death were significantly more likely to live if prayed for. Specific complications (cardiac arrest, major surgery before discharge, need for a monitoring catheter in the heart) were significantly more likely to occur among those in the group not receiving prayer. Finally, when comparing those who knew about being prayed for with those who did not, there were fewer post-operative complications in those who had no knowledge of being prayed for.

The authors conclude that due to various limitations in the trials included in this review (such as unclear randomising procedures and the reporting of many different outcomes and illnesses) it is only possible to state that intercessory prayer is neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick. Further studies which are better designed and reported would be necessary to draw firmer conclusions."


207 Posts

Specializes in Psychiatry, ICU, ER. Has 4 years experience.

My experience as an ex-monastic, ex-Catholic atheist and psychiatric NP student is that mindfulness can work wonders across a wide range of disorders, while prayer is entirely bogus.

Would LOVE to see these alleged studies.


1,341 Posts

My experience as an ex-monastic, ex-Catholic atheist and psychiatric NP student is that mindfulness can work wonders across a wide range of disorders, while prayer is entirely bogus.

Would LOVE to see these alleged studies.

What do you mean when you say mindfulness?


14,633 Posts

I, too, balk at the use of the word "must." Sure, most of the concepts listed could be helpful -- but, "must embrace"??


105 Articles; 5,349 Posts

Specializes in Gerontological, cardiac, med-surg, peds. Has 16 years experience.

Because we are primarily spiritual beings having a human experience, spirituality is inherent to the human condition. I know it is cliche, but one can be spiritual without being religious. It is difficult for our Western scientific minds to even begin to understand spirituality, because spiritual experiences and effects / prayer etc often are very difficult to capture by quantitative empirical means. Doesn't mean it is not real; the way we conduct science may be at fault. Qualitative studies may be more appropriate to study these phenomena. I wrote a little about the FICA Spiritual Assessment tool in my latest blog.