Is UMKC training doctors or shamans?: the role of religion in modern medicine

In class on Friday, we heard a fascinating talk by Dr. Ellen Wright Clayton on the “Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Genomic Medicine”.  Dr. Clayton posed many interesting questions as to whether physicians should use religious language with patients or strictly adhere to scientific terms and phrases when conveying information or attempting to persuade patients to get a genetic test.

Apparently, this issue is very much on the minds of many medical school and hospital administrations. The University of Missouri- Kansas City School of Medicine recently implemented experiential spirituality instruction in the third year of its six-year combined BA-MD program. (Read more here). The program’s directors cite four main components as the program’s objectives: to expand the understanding of the patient to include spiritual needs, to foster understanding of how a patient’s spiritual beliefs impact their health, to recognize how the student’s own beliefs impact his or her practice of medicine, and to appreciate the value of the chaplain as part of a health care team. Students who were initially skeptical of the program or opposed to bringing religion into medical training changed their opinions after shadowing a chaplain and completing the coursework. Programs such as this are not unique to medical schools; the Massachusetts General Hospital for Children instituted a unique training program in clinical pastoral education for clinicians six years ago. The program has successfully trained 53 clinicians in the program, giving them new awareness, sensitivity, and language to use when talking with critically ill patients and their families. (Read more about the program here).

These programs, along with many similar workshops and conferences for physicians, exist because a great need for religious and cultural sensitivity now exists in the medical field. This recent attempt to understand religious and cultural differences is a response to problems and misunderstandings that have resulted in frustration and death. Anne Fadiman’s novel The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a poignant example of how a misunderstanding between American doctors and a refugee family from Laos led to tragedy in the treatment of their epileptic child. North American health care professionals in particular face a great challenge in the increasing religious and cultural diversity of their patients.

Of course, while curricula involving both physical and spiritual healing may be a novelty in medical schools, the idea of healing both body and soul is an ancient one that appears to be intrinsic to both religion and medicine. The traditional practice of shamanism places equal importance on physical and spiritual healing and the shaman’s role in both. The Bible attests to restoring sight to the blind, curing paralytics, and healing lepers. Mental health professionals write about the interrelatedness of patients’ religious beliefs and mental well-being. Obviously, there is a long tradition revealing the intertwined nature of physicality and spirituality; modern initiatives to incorporate the two are simply a new approach to this age-old question.

For many clinicians, religious language can be a powerful tool to relate to patients and understand them as whole people. Also, for many physicians, religion is a huge component of their personal motivation and they view their practice as a vocation or ministry. A greater understanding and acknowledgment of both of these facets of religion will foster a religious sensitivity that will lead to greater physician/patient communication and empathy. The dangers of ignoring the issue of religion and culture in an increasingly diverse, global patient pool are clear and grave. Religion, culture, and medicine are inseparable because religion and culture form so much of who the patient is and how he or she perceives health, healing, and medicine. Personally, I fully support the implementation of religious and cultural sensitivity training in medical schools and for currently practicing clinicians. In fact, I think that it is absolutely essential for modern medical practice.

Kelly Bouquet

~ by kellyb243 on March 16, 2008.

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