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Religious, spiritual beliefs are important to patients, but not necessarily in medicine

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Survey examines crossover of spirituality and health care in adults aged 50 years or older.

Religious and spiritual beliefs are important to patients, but should not necessarily cross over into the realm of medicine, according to a new poll of adults aged 50 years and older.

Even so, 78% of adults aged 50 to 80 years believed their health care providers could help them find hope amid health challenges. Overall, 39% stated clinicians could help find or support religious or spiritual connections, and 58% believed providers could help them find deeper meaning in the experience of illness.

The results were part of a survey, “Religious and Spiritual Beliefs and Health Care,” by the University of Michigan’s National Poll on Health Aging, based at the U-M Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation and supported by AARP and Michigan Medicine, U-M’s academic medical center.

“While 45% of older adults say their religious beliefs are very important to them, and 50% say that about their spiritual beliefs, even this group largely wants to keep this aspect of their lives separate from their health care,” Adam Marks, MD, MPH, a hospice and palliative care physician at Michigan Medicine, said in a news release. Marks is an associate professor of geriatric and palliative medicine.

“But a sizable majority of all older adults – whether or not they say belief is important to them – reported that they’d turn to health care workers to help them find deeper meaning in their illness, and 78% believe health care workers will help them find hope when they’re having a health-related challenge,” Marks said.

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Many health care systems have a way to record the religious affiliation of patients in their electronic medical records. Medical students and others training for health professions are told to ask their patients about any beliefs that might affect their future care, L.J. Brazier, MDiv, a chaplain at Michigan Medicine’s Department of Spiritual Care, said in the news release.

“Having this information available can help providers ensure that patients with strongly held beliefs or specific religious affiliations receive everything from appropriate hospital food to visits with chaplains of a specific faith tradition when they’re having a health crisis or nearing the end of life,” according to the study.

The survey from July 2022 involved 2,163 adults aged 50 to 80 years. Among the findings:

  • 84% have religious (71%) or spiritual (80%) beliefs that are important to them.
  • 70% felt comfortable discussing their beliefs with health care providers.
  • 28% would like health care providers to ask about their beliefs.
  • 26% discussed their beliefs with a health care provider.

“Being a religious or spiritual person, or not following a faith tradition or spiritual practices, is a highly personal matter,” poll director Jeffrey Kullgren, MD, MPH, MS, said in the news release. Kullgren is an associate professor of internal medicine at Michigan Medicine and physician and researcher at the VA Ann Arbor Healthcare System.

“So perhaps it’s not surprising that only about a quarter of all people in this age range say they’ve talked about their beliefs with a health care provider, though this rose to about one-third of those who say their religious or spiritual beliefs are very important to them,” Kullgren said.

As for guiding treatment, many older adults said their religious beliefs (39%) or spiritual beliefs (46%) have become more important as they have grown older, but 19% of the adults said their beliefs influenced their health care decisions.

In treatment, 77% preferred their health care providers keep their own beliefs separate from the practice of health care, while 15% expressed reluctance to receive health care from a provider with different spiritual or religious beliefs.


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