WEB EXCLUSIVE: New institute will study spirituality and health

GW will study how spirituality and religion affect health with the George Washington Institute on Spirituality and Health, planned to open in June. The institute will sponsor conferences, retreats, awards and continuing education programs, GWISH Program Manager Renee Bergen said.

The John Templeton Foundation, a group that invests money in groups that conduct research on religion and science, donated $2.4 million to the new institute.

Bergen said this money will add class options to GW’s School of Health Sciences and Medicine, which will add a dimension of spirituality to whole-person care and compassionate care.

The $2.4 million also includes four-year $25,000 scholarships, called John Templeton Spirituality and Medicine Curricular Awards, which GWISH can divide between course directors and medical institutions in D.C. to continue the study of spirituality and medicine.

A one-year $15,000 residency award will fund psychiatric residency training programs, which will address spirituality and mental health issues, Bergen said.

“We hope to see GWISH not only integrated into the GW academic arena, but also into the D.C. community,” said Dr. Christina Puchalski, founder and director of GWISH and an assistant professor in aging studies at the GW Medical Center. “I want this be a place for people to go and implement ideas, and to grow this field.”

Puchalski is the former director of education at the National Institute for Health and Care Research.

Dr. Karen A. Billingsley will serve as deputy director of GWISH, supervising staff, developing funding proposals and overseeing all programs, according to a Medical Center press release. Billingsley also serves as the official chaplain coordinator at the GW Hospital.

“GWISH will be a multidisciplinary institution, combining psychiatry, sociology, medicine, religion, education and host of other offices,” Billingsley said. “We have 27 GW faculty members who have volunteered to do research with GWISH.”

Other initiatives of GWISH include clergy-physician and clergy programs on end of life care, spirituality and chronic illness and a certificate program in spirituality and health, Billingsley said.

“Physicians will do spiritual assessments of their patients and find out what their needs are,” Billingsley said. “Then the physician can collaborate with the chaplain and they can decide how to best serve the whole patient, mind and body together.”

The spirituality and chronic illness and end-of-life care programs were developed to help people confront death and die in peace, Billingsley said.

“As a society we have not yet confronted that inevitable end,” she said. “It is ironic that we all meet the same end but don’t talk about it.”

Bergen said plans for the institute are still being finalized.

“Although the funding has been secured and the institute is on its way, it is not yet officially an institute,” Bergen said.

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