Australia’s doors are opening for spirituality in health care

Today’s blog is a guest blog written by my Australian colleague, Daryl Francis.

Last week I attended the 4th Australian Conference on Spirituality and Health Forgiveness, Spirituality and Health: From Brokenness to Wholeness, held on the campus of Adelaide University, Australia.

I found it encouraging to hear that the value of spirituality as a healing agent in our health care system is gaining respect. With so much evidence of its utility from within the medical profession itself, I came away asking myself why it is taking so long for society to demand that a person’s spiritual belief systems be taken into account in our hospitals and for our medical schools to facilitate its use in our health care systems.

The keynote speakers were Everett Worthington Jr, PhD, Professor and Chair of Psychology Virginia Commonwealth University, and Christina Puchalski MD Professor and executive director George Washington Institute of Spirituality and Health.

Worthington and Puchalski set the theme of Forgiveness in the practice of compassion. The theme was taken up by other speakers from around Australia and the United States. They explored the nature of forgiveness – what it was, what motivates us to forgive, how it is done, why we forgive, the benefits of forgiveness, who benefits when we forgive, and the ethics of forgiveness. Theological aspects of forgiveness were explored by pastors from several faiths.

One of the speakers gave a beautiful definition of forgiveness after telling how she had discovered forgiveness was vital to wholeness after being abused over a long period. She summed it up this way: “forgiveness is an act of grace which invites all into the wholeness of life.”

It was not all theory. Particularly moving first person accounts of forgiveness were given – of times when the seemingly unforgivable were forgiven – where things like multiple murder, rape, self-condemnation resulting from another’s suicide had touched the speakers’ personal lives, some of them in the previous few months.

Discussions moved from the nature of forgiveness to its spiritual basis, and from there to the benefits of spirituality in healthcare practice.

It was acknowledged that a patient’s need to feel forgiven, or yearning to be able to forgive another, could lead to such a change in consciousness that healing could flow freely – patients found a sense of their own wholeness through being able to forgive. Several examples were given from health care workers from their own clinical practices.

There were several attempts to define spirituality, but they came pretty much to this: spirituality is a personal experience of connectedness or closeness – a relationship to whatever an individual holds sacred.

Numerous examples were presented from health professionals where they had witnessed improved health outcomes and shorter recovery times by patients who had a spiritual approach to life, and where their carers were sensitive to the spiritual needs of their patients, or expressed some form of spirituality themselves.

Dr Nasrin Parsian PhD, MSc of the Australian Catholic University here in Melbourne works in research, clinical practice and teaching in various areas of nursing, diabetes care, adolescent health and more recently, spirituality and care. Dr Parsian gave a paper based on her research based on a study with about 100 young adults dealing with diabetes. She concluded that “Spirituality is an important coping strategy for young adults with diabetes and helps them cope with stressful situations and self-manage diabetes…. Spirituality needs to be incorporated in care plans…”

Other medical researchers supported these observations with their own studies, … often with lots of statistics and data tables! ;-)  I have to admit that the stats and data tables were not at all riveting (zzz!) for me, but the results of the studies were impressive.

Health professionals from across the world spoke about how medical schools are now including courses that stress the importance of understanding spirituality and what it means to people of different cultures can mean to the best health outcomes for patients. If you have been following this blog you will have read that medical schools in the USA have been demanding courses in spirituality and health care for some years now. Taking a spiritual history of a patient is quite routine in many hospitals in the USA.

Australia is moving in the same direction. Dr Kenneth Curry spoke of how, since 2009 this is being implemented at the Medical School of Sydney University, a secular institution. So far, an introductory integrated session is given to all new students, with the option to take up further studies if a student is interested. Feedback has been encouraging. This year content related to palliative care and teaching on taking a spiritual history is being introduced, and opportunities are being sought to extend the teaching content and resources in this area.

The recognition of spirituality in the mainstream health care system is encouraging. It can only lead to better health outcomes.

Thanks, Daryl!

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