What if you could page God as you wait for medical test results? Wait to recover from the flu? Wait to see if your health insurance plan will cover a test or condition? Wait on hold to make a doctor’s appointment?
If God heard your page, what do you think would happen next?
The realities of health care in America make many of us wish we could make this call/page/text and that God would swoop in and makes things right. An all-powerful God might find lost paperwork, speed up slow health care systems, and maybe even heal the condition that led us to the hospital or doctor’s office in the first place. That God might clarify a position on contraceptive coverage (and a host of other issues) or offer support to people struggling at all stages of life.
I don’t know how God would respond to my page, but I do know that many Americans think and talk to God about their health and the health of their loved ones. National surveys show that close to 75% of Americans believe God can cure people who have been given no chance of survival by medical science. Seventy percent regularly pray for their own health or the health of family members.
Despite these numbers, a growing body of research shows that health care organizations are not as responsive to religion and spirituality as they might be. In my recently released book, Paging God: Religion in the Halls of Medicine, I find that physicians, nurses and chaplains in large academic hospitals conceive of religion and spirituality in a host of ways that make communication and interdisciplinary care that includes attention to religion and spirituality difficult. While nurses generally make room for patients’ religious and spiritual backgrounds, many physicians are less prepared to offer spiritual support in their own or other faith traditions. Surveys reinforce these findings showing that close to three-quarters of advanced cancer patients do not receive the spiritual or religious support they need from health care organizations and close to half do not receive it even from religious groups.
Despite their missions to care, many health care organizations don’t see providing religious and spiritual support to patients and families as central to what they do. The 2012 Joint Commission’s Comprehensive Accreditation Manuel for Hospitals requires health care organizations to “respect the patient’s cultural and personal values, beliefs and perspectives,” and to “accommodate the patient’s right to religious and other spiritual services” among other things. The Commission allows health care organizations to do this as they see fit. The real financial strains many hospitals face frequently make hiring a professionally trained chaplain to provide this care a low priority.
Second, many health care providers receive little to no professional training in religion and spirituality. Historically nurses learned more about religion, as part of good bedside care, than did doctors but many are still not sure how to approach patients and families about these issues. It was in end of life situations, in my research in intensive care units, that providers were most likely to bring up religion or spirituality but even then many were uncomfortable. Many health care educators are attempting to address this problem but work remains to be done.
Chaplains are the health care professionals best training in religion and spirituality, but chaplaincy departments are chronically under-funded and many are poorly integrated into health care organizations. Chaplains have not had a strong national voice historically and many patients and health care providers alike are either unaware or suspicious about the services they provide. Growing religious diversity complicates chaplains’ work as they increasingly work as inter-faith chaplains serving people from a range of religious backgrounds in addition to their own. A small body of research suggests that hospitalized patients who spend time with chaplains are more satisfied with their care than others but much research remains to be done.
While palliative care professionals are increasingly paying attention to religion and spirituality, health care providers across specialties need to be more aware of these issues. Spiritual and religious concerns are not optional for many patients and families in their care, but core to how patients experience themselves, their illnesses and their care. Creating ways for health care organizations to be more aware and responsive to religion and spirituality will not make health care more efficient or less expensive but will make it more compassionate.