Spirituality in health care

BY JESSICA BRACKS, The University of Texas Medical Branch, SOM Class of 2016

Spirituality and religious practices are highly prevalent among the general populace. Many have daily or weekly rituals in which they engage and share with their families. Yet, how many of us see the connection between this spirituality and our health? When addressing illness, disease, and prevention, the first action is actually a reaction to what we perceive to be wrong. It is the patient’s genetics or bad habits that are the problem. The standard approach is typically to try to find and name a disease and choose the appropriate medication. It is also possible that patients can experience healing with methods other than external influences such as pharmaceuticals and herbs. The perspective of healing from within must be presented in the patient encounter. This can lead to improved health outcomes. Spiritual self-care is equally important as self-care of the body and mind.

In order to have an effective patient encounter, I suggest that some spiritual practice must be part of the life of the health care professional. Carl Jung stated that “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances; if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” Through the personal practice of prayer, meditation, yoga, and others, the physician or another healer can better prepare for the encounter and better empathize with the patient. Research has shown that the exercise habits of the physicians directly affect their counseling habits and reception of their patients. Like exercise, patients need an example of how to hone awareness of their bodies and how to practice mindfulness and meditation.

Spiritual care of patients does not require excessive emotional attachment. Sir William Osler, in his speech “Aequanimitas,” promotes clinical detachment without hardening of “the human heart by which we live.” (Osler, 1889) This balance can be achieved when physicians attend to their own spiritual health needs. We must see ourselves as whole beings and see our patients from this perspective as well. Through the use of the holistic body, mind, and spirit models for patient (and self) encounters, we can both heal and be healed. (Anandarajah, 2008) When the healer’s spirit is open, there is a connection with the spirit of the patient, making it possible for other counseling and therapy to be received be it Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, lifestyle change, medication, diet, and so on.

So how do we apply these principles in practice? To begin, the physician or other healthcare professional can take a moment prior to each encounter to focus his/her personal energies in order to better connect with the patient. One model is the 3 P’s which are essential to improving personal insight and intuition: Pause, Presence, and Proceed. (Rakel & Fortney, 2012) Pausing is stopping and being aware of this moment. Presence can be described as an awareness of what is happening in the moment, experiencing body sensations, noticing thoughts, feelings, emotions and accepting whatever arises without reacting to it. Proceed is just as it sounds: begin the patient encounter and respond with compassion and positive intention. This encourages patients to delve further into the “whys” and “when’s” of the visit and lead to a more meaningful doctor-patient relationship.

The goal of spirituality within the medical practice is to enhance patient well-being and cause both the physician and the patient to communicate on a much deeper level of understanding. The mind-body-spirit connection can be further explored but is more than just a formula. Like exercise, it must be a way of life from which the physician communicates with patients and helps them see themselves from a different perspective. The necessary self-reflection, empathy, insight, and intuition that flow from one person to the other can then be focused into the practice of mindfulness and build trust and improve health perspectives. In creating health in others, we must first create it within ourselves.


1. Anandarajah, G. M. (2008). The 3 H and BMSEST Models for Spirituality in Multicultural Whole-Person Medicine. Annals of Family Medicine, 448-458.

2. Lobelo, F., Duberly, J., & Frank, E. (2008). Physical activity habits of doctors and medical. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 89-92.

3. Osler, W. B. (1889, May 1). Aequanimitas with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses, and other Practitioners of Medicine. Retrieved from Celebrating the Contributions of William Osler: http://www.medicalarchives.

4. Rakel, D. M., & Fortney, L. M. (2012). The Healing Encounter. In D. Rakel, Integrative Medicine (pp. 20-24). Philadelphia: Elsevier Saunders.