Spirituality + Medicine: Caring for the whole person
12/12/2019 by Jane Njeru, MB, ChB
Many institutions of higher learning have centers dedicated to spirituality and health. That's because, in the life course of individuals, these two forces are often closely related.
Spirituality has been described as "the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things." On the other hand, medical care falls in the realm of science, defined as "the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment."
While these two concepts appear to be on the opposite ends of a spectrum, they often reside side-by-side within the person, and can influence each other deeply.
In many religious traditions, spirituality informs almost all aspects of people's lives. Faith and religious beliefs have a strong role in life and death, illness and healing. For instance, illness may be perceived as being present because it was allowed by God. The health care provider (or science), is being simply the "vessel" He uses for healing. In this way, spirituality and health care are two forces with the single goal of healing the patient.
Some religious stipulations that patients observe, such as periods of fasting, may require that providers adjust medications, or postpone tests and appointments for a few weeks. Providers can be partners and advocates for their patients during this time, which helps strengthen the patient-provider relationship.
It's important that your provider is aware of the role spirituality plays in your life, so please talk this over with them. This awareness can help guide your medical care and support your healing.
Recognizing this link between spirituality, health and healing, allows providers to treat the whole person, with their multiple dimensions — physical, cognitive, psychological, emotional, social and spiritual.
Dr. Jane Njeru is a general internist in Employee and Community Health's (ECH) Division of Community Internal Medicine (CIM). She completed her medical school training at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, and her residency in Internal Medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Her interests include developing interventions to reduce health disparities, with special focus on patients with limited English proficiency, immigrants and refugees.