Research shows health outcomes are better when doctors acknowledge patients are both body and soul.
As I was about to leave my family doctor’s office recently after an annual check-up, I was surprised by a question she asked me. The year before, during my previous annual appointment with Dr. Grant (not her real name), she entered the office wearing a face mask. She explained to me that her son had been diagnosed with cancer and she needed to take precautions since he was on chemo.
When I arrived to her office this time, I knew in advance that her son had passed away. I was deeply, deeply sad. I will wait until the end of the appointment to tell her that I am so sorry for her loss, I thought.
I arrived with some serious symptoms of poor stress management: lack of sleep, weight loss, serious muscle strains, headaches. I was having a crazy year — though not as challenging as hers — but for the past six years, medical appointments always gave me goosebumps because I fear a cancer recurrence. The perspective of a doctor you see can make a huge difference.
Patients need doctors and medical institutions that understand that body and soul cannot be divided. We are looking for healing that incorporates both dimensions of ourselves. According to Mayo Clinic research, taking in consideration the spiritual needs of the patient could improve recovery from different illnesses.
Dr. Tracy Balboni, professor at Harvard Medical School and oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Center, says that “illness is a spiritual experience for most patients …; they want to be seen as whole persons, not just as bodies affected by illness.” However, she also concludes that physicians are often in need of more education to connect body and soul.
It seemed to me that Dr. Grant was a physician well prepared on this matter of connecting soul and body. Her personal experience of going through her son’s cancer journey most certainly provided her with a deep understanding of other patients. She has decided to magnanimously share her personal experience for the well-being of her patients.
After reviewing my symptoms and asking me many questions about my last year and the challenges I was facing, Dr. Grant prescribed some physical therapy for my back, doing more exercise, counseling with a therapist, and trying to find a spiritual director or guide. This was the very first time this was part of my “prescription” from a doctor. Why did she do it?
According to a survey done by Mayo Clinic, people who practice spirituality or religious beliefs have enhanced immune function compared with people who are not “religiously involved.” It has been shown that those who practice meditation, pray alone or with a group, have religious traditions, or talk about spiritual topics with someone else, are more optimistic, have more hope, higher satisfaction with life, are at peace with themselves, and expect better health outcomes. Besides this, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network says that those “who rely on their faith or spirituality tend to be more compliant with treatments.” It has been measured that these practices lower blood pressure, as well as control pain and nausea among other things, so we can say that physical health and quality of life can also be improved.
Even when surveys show that 96% of family physicians think that spiritual well-being is a key factor for health, the spiritual needs of patients are often ignored or not satisfied. What might be the reasons? Maybe doctors are worried about bias or misunderstanding prudence. Maybe they are burned out due to an exhausting job. Maybe they don’t know how to do it. Or let’s face it, maybe it’s because spirituality and religious practices often are linked to the acceptance of serious concerns around the end of life, so they have an understandable human fear of suffering when they see their patients undergo these ordeals.
Of course there is sadness, trauma, conflict and fear when you accompany another person with life and death matters. As a wellness coach serving several cancer patients, I deal with this every day. Health companions such as doctors, nurses, chaplains, or coaches, need to be generous and brave. They need to give, while setting limits as well and getting support for themselves. Touching suffering makes us more vulnerable, yes, but also more human.
Dr. Bruce D. Feldstein, founder of The Jewish Chaplaincy and professor at Stanford University, has shared the beauty of not only “curing” but “healing” in order to give patients and family members comfort including the body, but also the mind, heart and soul. “There is healing in moving from brokenness toward wholeness, toward acceptance.”
Programs like the one offered by The Remen Institute for the Study of Health & Illness (RISHI) of Wright State University and its founder Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen are providing a real solution for health practitioners looking for a more supportive approach in order to connect soul and body and offer a more human and compassionate healing process.
In the “Religion and Spirituality in Cancer Care” initiative of Harvard University, we learned that patients want spirituality to be part of their care and medical team members, surprisingly, declared that it is appropriate for them to ask about a patient’s spiritual concerns, inquire for a chaplain’s visit or even pray with the patients.
Which brings me back to my own experience with my doctor recently and the question she asked me …
“Aidee, before you go, can we pray together?”
She asked this before I could express my well planned, rehearsed, and heartfelt phrase to tell her how sorry I was about the loss of her son.
We bowed our heads and she took my hands into hers. She said some simple and beautiful words. That moment brought me healing amidst my sobs and tears and my gut tells me it brought her some healing, too.