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Health Care and Spirituality Coming Together

By Helen McNeal, Executive Director – CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care

I’m a baby boomer … and proud of it!  We have changed the world in many ways. While the jury will probably be out for many years on the positive or negative impact on many things that we have done, I am convinced that there is at least one multi-dimensional gift that we have given that will have a lasting positive impact.  We are changing the health care system in America.

Leaving aside the politics of Obamacare, over the next few articles, we’ll take a look at this gift and what it means. Some of the topics we’ll explore are how we are restoring choice to health care across the continuum of life, the rise and importance of self-empowerment, and today, we’ll look at how boomers are re-establishing the linkage between spirituality and health care.

In theMiddle Ages, health was seen as not just physical well-being but the well being of body, mind and spirit. The earliest health care providers were also the providers of spiritual care … the religious, priests, nuns and monks.  We see this in the early traditions of “hospice” where monasteries cared for the traveler, explorer, or knight on the way to the Crusades as well as the sick and dying.  Remedies from other lands were brought back and shared.

But with the rise of science, health care increasingly became body care and the physicians became scientists, treating and researching the results accomplished by an increasing array of “medicines.” In the process, the role of the spiritual in health care was largely lost.  Even in the early hospitals of the last century which were frequently established by religious orders, the physician was responsible for care of the body and the chaplain, the care of the soul.

However, the traditions of hospice and today’s palliative care have opened the door to an era in whole person care.  Why?  Scientific research is demonstrating that care that is focused on the care of the whole person is resulting in better outcomes including greater longevity, increased satisfaction with the care provided and,incidentally, reducing costs. In short,people live longer and better when we attend to them as a whole person who is engaged with their care in all aspects, body, mind and spirit.

This is all good news … and hospital chaplains intuitively understand the importance of the work that they do hand in glove with other health care providers. But health care economics has meant that there are fewer chaplains today and even fewer professional, board certified chaplains. And, with the emphasis on enabling people to receive more and more of their care in the community, away from the hospital, the role of the community religious professional and volunteers at the local church, synagogue, temple or other place of worship will play an increasingly important role in supporting health.

With this exciting opportunity for partnership in supporting the whole person health of our community comes a new challenge… building new bridges of understanding between spiritual care providers, our community religious professionals, and our health care providers in medicine, nursing and other disciplines. Few community religious professionals aretrained in the ways of supporting those with long-term serious illness. Likewise, community health professionals are not accustomed to drawing a spiritual advisor into a patient’s health care team. These are not skills that either professional learned in school. This is community change at its hardest and most necessary. Change at the level of individual skill and change at the system level.

We BabyBoomers are known as the generation of change.  Together, we can make this change happen at all levels.  To advance this work, the CSU Shiley Institute for Palliative Care is hosting a half-day workshop on Building Bridges BetweenSpirituality and Medicine on April 30th at San Diego County Medical Society,5575 Ruffin Road, Suite 250, San Diego. I urge you to encourage both your community religious professional, whatever your denomination or practice, and your health care provider to attend. Visit our website for details.

After all,we Baby Boomers are also known for our “enlightened self-interest.” If your providers, both spiritual and healthcare, attend … you are the winner as you are strengthening your own chance of getting great whole-person care when you need it.

For more information on palliative care, visit: