GW institute brings spirituality to study of medicine

GW’s Institute of Spirituality and Health is helping the University at Buffalo incorporate religion and faith into the traditionally science – and fact – based field of medicine.

Buffalo has received a $50,000 Templeton grant from the GW program to add a spirituality component to its medical school’s curriculum.

The goal of these grants is to shift the focus from “just treating the patient’s physical body and really talking about how spirituality can impact healthcare treatment”, said Christina Puchalski, director of GWish and a professor of medicine and health care sciences.

An alumna of the GW’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Puchalski founded GWish in May 2001 as an organization that studies and promotes issues related to spirituality and health.

GWish uses money from the Templeton Foundation and awards grants annually to medical schools seeking to teach spirituality. Pulchaski said about 100 medical schools already include a spirituality component in their curriculum.

Pulchaski said she began working with universities interested in receiving Templeton grants in 1992. In addition to the University at Buffalo, Stanford University, Washington University in St. Louis, the University of Virginia and the University of South Carolina have also received the grant.

GW’s Institute of Spirituality and Health has become a model for incorporating spirituality into the medical school curriculum. In 1992, spirituality was an elective course for medical school students at GW. Today spirituality is integrated through all four years of GW’s medical school curriculum. GW was the first medical school to integrate spirituality into the entire curriculum, Puchalski said.

Cameron Berg, a third-year medical student at GW, said incorporating spirituality into the curriculum is essential.

“The essence of doctoring is essentially spiritual,” Berg said. “We seek to help and guide our patients through life’s most wonderful and miserable experiences.”

At GW, there is a memorial service for the cadavers used by students and a reflection period following the service. Students also learn to keep a patient’s religion in mind when recording a medical history and considering pain management.

In addition to doling out grant money and advocating for medicine infused with religion, GWish offers spirituality-related trips for health care professionals.

This summer, Puchalski led a retreat to Assisi, Italy, for doctors and nurses interested in integrating spirituality into clinical practice.

David Holmes, a clinical assistant professor at the University at Buffalo, developed the Spirituality in Medicine Interdisciplinary Training Program. Holmes said the process of making the curriculum more spiritual became easier once the university received the Templeton grant.

“People are more likely to respond to your request when they know grant money is behind it,” Holmes said. He said that it has been difficult to evaluate student response to the new program so far.

“I suspect that at first students will be suspicious and may not see a lot of value in it, but I think that students will find that understanding a patients’ spiritual beliefs strongly increases the strength of the doctor and patient relationship,” Holmes said.

Mary Kate Seward, a second year medical student at the University at Buffalo, said the curriculum changes were “very useful because we always tend to assume that how we live is how others live, and having this part of the curriculum makes us aware to ask questions and be more sensitive to people’s perceptions, spiritually related or not.”

Seward said that her peers sometimes overlooked the importance of the lessons in spirituality because it was overshadowed by stereotypes.

“We learned about a potential Jewish patient, and my Jewish friends laughed at what was said because it was so stereotypical and over-expressed that it made it funny,” Seward said. Some people do have extreme beliefs that conflict with Western medicine, and overall it is good to be more aware of that.”

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