Religion & Spirituality Should be Integrated

Religion & Spirituality Should Be Integrated Into Mainstream Healthcare

By Melissa Schaaf

Religion and spirituality aren’t usually incorporated within mainstream health care services, but Kelly Arora, adjunct faculty member, Iliff School of Theology, proposes that perhaps they should be.

“When it comes to religion and medicine, I think they’ve never really been taken apart,” she said. “I’m of the opinion that spirituality and medicine need to be hand in hand to address the whole person.”

Arora discussed the historical relationship between religion and medicine, identified ramifications and benefits within the Western model of health care and considered alternative approaches and emerging collaborative efforts to provide holistic health care during a University of Denver Osher Lifelong Learning Lecture Series session titled “Religion and Medicine: Do They Mix?” OLLI is an adult learning membership program for people age 50 and over.

Early civilizations depended on individuals who were connected spiritually to help aid, heal or cure illnesses and injuries. Arora noted that Shamans and priest healers were often consulted to connect with the supernatural for healing the sick. Alternatively, it was often seen as a punishment or demonic symbol if someone fell ill.

Diseased, sick and injured people were considered impure and would be healed if they repented, prayed or bestowed a miracle by a divine being. Traditions, relics and incantations were thought to help the sick become well again.

It wasn’t until about the 1500s that the relationship between medicine and religion changed . The notion of the body, mind and spirit as three different entities emerged. Arora explained that a separation between religious care providers and health care providers was initiated, despite the strong pull of the priest-healer tradition.

As science and biomedicine evolved throughout the centuries, religion and medicine became less intertwined. Today, there is little religious involvement and a more mechanical approach to healing.

“Healers in the Western tradition are no longer seen as representatives of the divine or sometimes even as humans anymore,” Arora remarked. “The current image of the healing professional is more about machines and technology and diagnoses and the science behind biomedicine. Likewise, the patient has been dehumanized into an ‘iPatient.’”

Although modern devices and practicescan provide accurate information for health care providers, Arora said that that isn’t always the type of care patients are seeking. Complete healing needs to address the way the patient thinks about illness, often including the spiritual dimension. She outlined three different models of understanding illness and how the healing process is reflected in each.

1) The Biomedical Model

In this model, the human body is seen as a machine and the illness is the dysfunction with the machine. The illness or disability can be attributed to many different factors, including poor health and habits, genetics, aging and germs. It is an objective event or process that can be singled out. This model is often invoked in the United States, particularly with acute illnesses and injuries. Medicalized suffering is embedded with the idea that anything and everything is able to be fixed or alleviated. Moral judgments emerge in the form of confessing that doctoral instructions were not followed or that one has not cared properly for him/herself.

2) The Moral Model

The Moral Model draws on supernatural beliefs about health and illness. The body represents and reflects the state of the soul: if the soul is well, the body is well. This notion is not limited to Christianity, but can be found in several religious and spiritual traditions (e.g., Karma or the Law of Attraction, the belief that whatever thoughts or ideas and individual puts out into the world will be reflected back to them). Healing can be the result of confession, repentance, sacrifice and/or prayer, among other methods.Elements of moral understandings of illness are common around the world…

3) The Energy Body Model

The Energy Body Model is derived from many Eastern religious traditions and is growing in popularity in the United States. The body has layers, levels and centers of energy that maintain one’s health and well-being. These energies can become blocked and imbalances ensue, which opens the gateway for germs, viruses and bad energies to enter the body. Individuals are subject to the surrounding micro- and macro- sets of energies present in the universe. Healing comes from re-centering oneself and aligning the energies. This can be accomplished through alternative medicines, such as meditation, energy healing, Reiki, massage or acupuncture.
These models often cross paths and boundaries for patients looking to make sense of their illness or disease. Like most people, several of the lecture attendees stated that they couldn’t be confined to simply one of these models, but instead identified with all three in some way.

“We try to make meaning of all kinds of big events by relying on spiritual orienting systems,” Arora added. “Our system of spiritual beliefs, values, practices, experiences and relationships provides an understanding of how the world works, how we relate in it, and our role in it.”

“Spirituality is not confined to specific religious traditions,” she commented. “It is the way we connect with what is sacred in our lives; it’s something that is bigger than you, bigger than me. It gives life a sense of meaning and purpose.”

She said that the wholeness of a person is not always taken into consideration in the Western medical approach to health care. Although there are studies that link religion and spirituality to greater health and well-being, many health care facilities do not address the patient’s spirituality or consider treatments incorporating religion/spirituality. Additionally, health care providers with one faith tradition may not be comfortable with alternate faith or spiritual traditions.

Alternative healing practices are more likely to address the patient’s spiritual orienting model and what is of ultimate importance to them.

Arora said that addresing a patient’s faith, religion or spirituality can be the difference between treating the disease and treating the patient. Doctors, nurses and biomedicalhealth care providers who recognize that omission are taking the first step to providing more complete health care.

“Whatever condition is present, whatever condition the patient is struggling with, they often want to integrate the wholeness of who they are into their healing plans,” she said.