The Advocate: 'Patients Want To Be Talked To'

Harold Koenig, director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke, has been studying the role of faith in healing for almost 20 years. A leading researcher in the field, he recently wrote "Spirituality in Patient Care." He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Claudia Kalb:

KALB: How did you get interested in the intersection of religion and health?

KOENIG: It seemed amazing that some patients with devastating illnesses like stroke or cancer coped as well as they did. And so I wanted to find out what they did to help them through these difficult circumstances.

How accurate would you rate the research?

In the area of mental health, I think it's pretty good. So many studies have been done in so many different populations by so many investigators with the vast majority--two thirds--finding significant association between religious beliefs and well-being: life satisfaction, hope, purpose, meaning, lower rates of depression, less anxiety, lower suicide rates. The research in the area of physical health is not as solid.

Should medical students be required to take a religion-and-health course?

Yes. I think unless medical students have that training, they are not going to address those issues, or they're going to do it in a way that may interfere with the patient's rights.

Should doctors take spiritual histories of patients?

Yes. If we didn't ask questions for fear that they would induce guilt, we wouldn't ask about smoking, drinking or sexual activity.

Is it acceptable for doctors to pray with patients?

Certainly, if the patient asks the doctor, "Would you pray with me?" and the patient is religious and from the same background--and the situation is serious. If the doctor has tried everything and is running out of things to do, I think it's appropriate to bring it up. Before the doctor asks the question, though, he or she needs to be absolutely certain that the patient's answer is going to be yes. That's why the spiritual history is critical.

What is driving the interest in religion and health?

As we moved into the later 20th century, we recognized that there are questions of meaning and purpose that science just doesn't have very good answers to. Also, patients want to be talked to. They are tired of [being] treated like bodies, just physical bodies. Plus, older adults in America today are a very religious population.

How do you respond to critics?

If the critics say physicians shouldn't address spiritual issues, doctors may avoid it completely rather than do it in a sensitive way or refer patients to chaplains.

What are your religious beliefs?

I'm a Christian, and Christianity is an important part of my life. It helps me to cope with my illness [a form of arthritis], raise my children and stay married.