Doctors and gods

September 27, 2006

I attended a lecture on 'Health and Spirituality' by a leading Sydney psychiatrist (a Jewish guy). It was a graduate seminar, mainly for medicos. I was struck again by how little people know about Christianity (and religion in general). The level of discussion was very introductory, as if it were a new idea that people's spirituality and belief systems might interact with their health and well-being. But there does seem to be a genuine shift among doctors, from thinking they should disabuse people of the idea that spiritual things matter to their health ("here, take a pill, that will fix your depression") to respecting a patient's religious views and building them into patient care ("as part of your history, tell me about your religious views").

What I found most intriguing is the idea that the doctor (a self-confessed god-figure, according to the lecturer) is now feeling some responsibility to be a spiritual advisor, too. In fact, one of the slide titles presented was "Correcting Dysfunctional Beliefs". And there are guidelines for spiritual assessment in the provision of care. Some even explore whether religious activities could form part of a medical prescription for a patient's health.

If doctors want to do this, they will need to educate themselves about specific religious beliefs. In the US, the number of medical schools offering courses in spiritual issues rose between 1992-2002 from 2% to 68%. But in Australia, there is still precious little such education to be had. We could also use greater involvement of trained Christians, moral philosophers, theologians, even apologists, in the health system, where people are often asking the hardest questions and looking most earnestly and urgently for the answers.

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