Should spirituality be integrated into medicine?

There is increasing acceptance, both in the community and in the medical fraternity that we benefit from a holistic approach to healthcare.

From a patient perspective, being consulted about their spirituality is important to Australians and there's a general belief that spirituality helps recovery.

These assertions formed the opening part of Associate Professor Kellie Bennett's ( presentation at the recent Compassion, Spirituality and Health Conference ( held earlier this month in Adelaide.

She's the recipient of a Templeton Foundation ( research grant awarded to her to survey spirituality content in medical education in Australian universities nationally, as she also gauges the attitudes of Deans, teachers, students and practitioners to the use of spirituality in patient care.

Dr Bennett works in the School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Western Australia.

When she first looked at the curriculum on joining staff there, she was "surprised to see that there was nothing about spirituality in the curriculum", although she later discovered it was part of a 'hidden curriculum' that was often rather random.

UWA has made some progress, offering elective units that include a spiritual approach to healthcare.

But Dr Bennett is looking towards an integrated model where spirituality would be embedded into the curriculum.

We sat down and talked one day between sessions at the conference.

She said that there are some good things going on in Australian hospitals, including the work of chaplains, counsellors and nurses, but doctors are seeking guidance and clarification from the whole community as to their role in the use of spirituality in medicine, bearing in mind that what doctors don't need is yet another job to add to a long list.

With the Association of American Colleges, Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Organisations and the World Health Organisation all on board as to the importance of the recognition of spirituality in healthcare, and the majority of US and UK medical schools already providing it in the curriculum, the Australian medical scene is poised to start considering the complexities of how, what , who, how much, when: that is, how to move to a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of treatment.

Coming from a genetics background, Dr Bennett now does some research in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and is dedicated to evidence-based medicine.

She spoke of "incredible research coming out" where you can see actual neurological changes from the practice of meditation.

She feels that the fact that meditation is found to be beneficial, has very low harm associated with it, and that there's a significant body of corroborating literature, needs to be communicated to people.

Everyone from Hugh Jackman to the local real estate agent is doing it.

"Nothing has opened my eyes like transcendental meditation has. It makes me calm and happy…", Jackman explains.

And considering the literature Dr Bennett refers to, it also makes him healthier.

As she takes on board how the US, UK Brazil and Canada have introduced spirituality to their medical curricula, we discussed how complementary and alternative medicine is a step ahead.

"They've always been patient-driven".

There's progress towards integration though.

Charles Gairdner Hospital in Perth already has a complementary centre for oncology that sits inside the cancer word, where massage, Reiki, reflexology are practiced.

Dr Bennett was as ready to talk about the benefits of prayer as she was meditation.

She'd done some work with it through the Cancer Council.

Research focusing on the power of prayer and meditation in healing nearly doubled in the 1990s and continues today (, providing documented MRI brain scans of the physical changes that take place in the body when someone meditates.

Dr Bennett did emphasise that unlike her genetics research, bringing spirituality into the medical curriculum will be more difficult … "will need more evidence almost than perhaps other areas that just don't need much justification.

You'll need to understand the mechanism and everything that goes with it, whereas we don't understand the mechanisms for a lot of our drug therapies."

The mechanism, or biochemical interaction, in regard to meditation ( is now being studied and recorded.

Helpful as that will be to the inclusion of spirituality into the curricula of medical schools, the benefits will be seen more in the associated advantages for both patients and staff.

When speaking of the affect of contemplative and affirmative prayer, Mary Baker Eddy, an early mind-body researcher and thought leader explains these non-toxic advantages: "Its pharmacy is moral, and its medicine is intellectual and spiritual, though used for physical healing."

Spirituality, emphasising the healing of the whole person …. not just the disease, promotes trust in a higher power and often results in a more buoyant disposition, self-forgiveness, self-forgetfulness, a sense of peace and certainty, hope, optimism, increased kindness and compassion, along with a decrease in pain and depression.

By all accounts, we could be seeing a transformation in how we do medicine in the next 10 or 20 years.

There's a change coming to the sick room.

Kay Stroud blogs for APN publications on the relationship between spirituality, consciousness and health. She also represents Christian Science to media and government in northern Australia.

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