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August 8, 2017

Health and Spirituality

Author Affiliations
  • 1Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 2Dana Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 3Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts
  • 4Harvard Kennedy School, Cambridge, Massachusetts
JAMA. 2017;318(6):519-520. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.8136

For centuries, physicians and other healers have witnessed how illness focuses attention on “ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and … relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred.”1 Patients often discover strength and solace in their spirituality, both informally through deeper connections with family and friends, and formally through religious communities and practices. However, modern day clinicians regularly overlook dimensions of spirituality when considering the health of others—or even themselves.

This relative neglect represents a departure from the substantial history linking health, religion, and spirituality within most cultures.2 However, accumulating evidence that highlights the richness of the interconnection can inform future strategies for population health as well as individualized, patient-centered care. According to a 2016 Gallup Poll of 1025 adults in the United States, 89% believe in God or a universal spirit, and 75% consider religion of considerable importance.3 The potential ramifications of these perspectives are substantial, especially given that increasing numbers of people in an aging society may be facing difficult end-of-life decisions.