From medical decisions and surgical recovery to coping with stress and end-of-life issues, a patient’s faith — or lack thereof — affects nearly every part of a medical journey.
Providers are trained to be experts in their science, but when it comes to healing the whole person, they must also consider the beliefs and faith background of their patients.
Rev. Darlene Miller Cooley, a staff chaplain at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said patients who have faith in a higher being or power tend to have a more positive outlook and better quality of life, even when they find themselves in dire situations.
“Faith has a tendency to bring you peace in the midst of whatever storm you may be in,” she said. “When patients believe in something and have hope, it changes the way they engage with their health challenges.”
Miller Cooley said numerous studies have found that those who lean on their faith during medical challenges have less pain, are more able to embrace loved ones and have less anxiety and worry. In her personal experience, she said they also find it easier to make medical decisions and be satisfied with them.
While most faiths allow medical interventions such as surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, some may have beliefs that don’t permit blood transfusions, abortion or other procedures. “We never want to have them compromise their commitment to their faith,” Miller Cooley said.
When the medical team is aware of a patient’s faith background, they can be more sensitive to it and take it into consideration during treatment.
Doheny said part of the history-taking that patients go through when they see a medical provider is to ask if they have spiritual beliefs that help them cope. The role of the medical provider isn’t to get involved in that, but to bring in whatever resources are necessary, whether that is a chaplain or some other spiritual figure.
Miller Cooley said medical providers can provide spiritual support to patients without overstepping their roles simply by the love they show through their actions of care as well as expressing interest and curiosity about the patient’s belief system.
“That allows caregivers to understand how faith impacts care no matter the care provider’s background,” she said. “Chaplains have the professional training and background to help patients and families integrate their belief system with their medical decisions.”
Kim Doheny, director of clinical research for neonatal-perinatal medicine, studies psychobiology and how patients and their families cope with stress.
“Whether it’s a family experiencing a crisis from the birth of a critically-ill infant or a patient’s own medical diagnosis, people tune into their core beliefs in those difficult times,” she said.
“Having a structure of support and providers who consider all dimensions of healing and health are foundational to a patient’s coping, so it’s critical for care providers to think about and embrace that even when it doesn’t align with their own faith or worldview.”
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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.