The body might be the primary concern of health care, but providers shouldn’t lose sight of patients’ spiritual side. That was the message delivered Wednesday by participants in a Divinity School panel sponsored by the Initiative on Health, Spirituality, and Religion at Harvard University and inspired in part by a study titled “Spirituality in Serious Illness and Health.”
Tracy Balboni, a Dana Farber and Harvard Medical School radiation oncologist and the first author of the research, started with a memory from her medical internship, when she was part of a team treating a young man with esophageal cancer. “I spent a lot of time with him because of the sheer complexity of his case,” she said. Focusing on his medical treatment, however, she overlooked other aspects of his care, until one day, “He stopped me, and I will never forget what he said. He said: ‘If I had known it would have been like this, I would have shot myself.’
“I was trying to address the complex parts of his care, and I had completely missed this,” she said.
A career looking beyond the merely medical had begun. The new research, Balboni said, should provide grounding for other health care providers to do the same.
Her team’s findings — from a review of hundreds of relevant papers — show indisputable evidence that connections between spirituality and serious illness are both important and common, Balboni said, and that they contribute to better end-of-life outcomes. The review also revealed that patients frequently feel that their spiritual needs are not addressed.
Other panelists, drawing from experiences with spiritual communities, shared their reactions to Balboni’s study and discussed how physicians might act on the findings.