Researchers issued grant to connect spirituality with medicine

by Cory Weinberg

Executive Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, Christina Puchalski, will use the recent department grant to highlight and improve upon the role of spirituality within health care systems.
Media Credit: Elise Apelian | Hatchet Staff Photographer
Executive Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, Christina Puchalski, will use the recent department grant to highlight and improve upon the role of spirituality within health care systems.

GW medical researchers will look to influence health policies by gathering evidence supporting the importance of spirituality in healing, after receiving a $175,000 grant Jan. 20.

The GW Institute for Spirituality and Health will tap policy experts from the across the country to investigate what research and educational steps are necessary to urge hospitals to adopt a more personal approach to patient care.

The institute has advocated for compassionate health care policies like hiring hospital chaplains and issuing spiritual surveys since it was founded in 2001.
Christina Puchalski, the institute’s executive director and a professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, said the research would look to rectify a healthcare system that has become detached from human emotion.

Puchalski, who specializes in end-of-life care as a clinician, defined spirituality broadly. She said it did not necessarily pertain strictly to religion, but to what gives a person purpose in life – whether it is family, work, nature or God.

She said she’s talked to patients and retirement home residents who lament how relationships between doctors and patients have frayed, becoming impersonal and unfriendly.

“[Doctors] are crunched into these 15-minute time slots, and all they want to do is figure out ‘What are you here for? What can I do?’ and then move on to the next person,” Puchalski said.

Hospitals need to figure out the right formula to revamp patient care, she said, pointing to a model of spirituality that her institute employs in 10 hospitals in California. The model dictates that doctors and nurses consult a board-certified chaplain on spirituality issues.

Puchalski has also helped develop a screening questionnaire for patients to understand their spiritual needs. She said the tool helps particularly when doctors are wary to ask personal questions that go beyond physical health.

With the grant money from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the institute will present data and evidence that shows why health care would benefit from a spiritual focus.

Cheryl Tupper, the program director for religion and health care at the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, said the institute’s connections in the health care policy world encouraged the grant.

“So many changes are happening across health care, and our interest is in the human dimension of care,” Tupper said. “We don’t want that to get lost and to stay in the list of priorities for how healthcare is delivered.”

Puchalski said her research team, which includes policy experts outside of GW, would look to find data that gives a clear direction for the future of spirituality in the health care system.

Medical schools across the country have already followed the University’s lead in promoting a spiritual focus on medical studies. GW’s medical school was the first to integrate spirituality into the curriculum after it was introduced as an elective in 1992.

“I think most people recognize that they want compassionate healthcare systems. That’s not a question at all. It’s the specifics we get push-backs on,” she said.

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