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Heaven Help Us

Cites a report by Paul Root Wolpe and Shimon Waldfogel in 'Hospital and Community Psychiatry,' who found doctors who take time to explore their patients' spiritual beliefs may help both their patients and themselves. Eliciting more clinically relevant information; The take-home sermon.

Doctors who take time to explore their patients' spiritual beliefs may help both their patients and themselves. They not only gain the patient's trust but also elicit more clinically relevant information. As a result, they make better diagnoses and may speed their patients' recovery from illness, say two researchers at Philadelphia's Jefferson Medical College.

"It's amazing that doctors feel comfortable asking patients detailed questions about their sex life but not about whether they go to church," says medical sociologist Paul Root Wolpe, Ph.D., and physician Shimon Waldfogel, M.D., who interviewed colleagues and patients about their experiences.

When doctors fail to broach the issue of religion, patients get the subtle message that certain aspects of their lives are not appropriate to discuss in a medical setting. This silence not only sends a message that the doctor is unsympathetic, but also may discourage the patient from sharing crucial information about everything from dietary habits to coping mechanisms.

Doctors who fail to discuss spirituality may also never know what their patients truly think about their illness. Some patients believe, for example, that their illness is a punishment for their sins and thus may slyly disobey a doctor's orders to avoid defying God's will.

Why are doctors so spiritually shy? Many are never taught that asking questions about religion is appropriate, the duo reports in Hospital and Community Psychiatry (Vol. 44, No. 5). Other doctors may have trouble dealing with patients of nonmainstream faiths, especially when the religion's tenets conflict with the doctor's job to heal.

The take-home sermon: Patients should inform their doctors of any religious concerns that may even remotely affect their care.

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