The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Prof. examines religion’s affect on well-being

Tara Scannell | Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Associate professor of medicine at Duke University Harold G. Koenig, M.D., said he is a strong advocate for the influence that spiritual and religious life has on the health of patients in the hospital.

Koenig spoke on “The Practice of Spirituality and the Practice of Medicine: Worlds Apart or Overlapping?” as part of the Saint Mary’s Quest Project: Women Exploring the Science/Religion Interface.

Koenig, who has had no theological training, said spiritual and religious needs are not being adequately met in hospitals based on the numerous studies he has conducted at Duke.

“The whole idea of caring for the sick originated from religious teachings,” he said. “The first hospitals were built and founded by the Church.”

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the separation of hospitals and religion arose, he said. At this time, hospitals became increasingly based on the scientific and the spiritual needs of patients were ignored.

“What’s really new is that we have a nursing profession that is not part of a religious order that is caring for the sick,” Koenig said. “Even many of the physicians, at least in this country in the early colonies, were ministers.”

In a Harvard University study done on hospitalized cancer patients, Koenig said that 80 percent of these patients said their spiritual needs were not being met.

“We are in a health care profession that is focused on the technological that is not addressing the spiritual issues in patients care.” Koenig said.

Koenig said many patients turn to spirituality and religion to deal with the fear, uncertainty and loss of control that accompanies being hospitalized.

“It’s not surprising there is much depression in the medical setting,” he said. “If you look at rates of depression in hospitalized patients, it’s close to 50 percent.”

In a study done at Duke Hospital, 40.1 percent of patients said they used religion the most among ways they cope. Koenig presented material from multiple studies supporting his claim that the spiritual and religious needs of patients had a direct impact on their physical and mental health.

“When you have low religious attendance you have low levels of well-being,” he said. “As you get higher your well-being goes up with your religious attendance.”

Koenig said patients with higher religiosity recovered about 50 percent faster than those with lower religiosity.

Before the year 2000, there were 724 quantitative studies done in regards to a patient’s religious involvement and mental health, Koenig said.

“Of those 724 nearly 500 showed that a religious person has better mental health – significantly better mental health – regardless of what domain you’re looking at,” he said.

Koenig stressed that given the evidence spirituality and religion play in a patents mental and physical health, hospitals need to being doing more to meet the needs of their patients.

“Many patients are religious and would like it addressed in their health care,” he said. “This doesn’t mean all patients, but a good two-thirds of patients would like their religious or spiritual needs addressed as part of their health care.”

To counter the lack of religious and spiritual needs being met by hospitals today, Koenig recommended that all hospitals take a spiritual history upon admission. Despite being a current requirement for accreditation, few hospitals actually do, he said.