There is a crisis in our healthcare system and it is not declining reimbursement rates or bureaucratic interference. Our healthcare system may be suffering from a crisis of faith. The documentary “Your Health: A Sacred Matter” (yourhealthasacredmatter.com/) investigates this crisis from the perspective of patients and medical professionals. The film is airing on the WORLD public television channel at 8pm on December 2nd with a repeat on Sunday, December 3 at 9pm PT. Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of “The Relaxation Response,” is interviewed in the film. Says Benson, “Our current grossly expensive healthcare system is over emphasizing just drugs and surgery. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could bring together drugs, surgeries and what we can do for ourselves including our own spirituality?”
Spirituality is important not just for patients, but for medical professionals as well. Dr. Christina Puchalski, Director of The George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health has studied the effects of faith in doctors. Says Puchalski in the film, “I was part of a study looking at the role of spirituality in the lives of medical residents specifically with regard to burnout and depression and sadly the rates of burnout, depression and suicide are very high among physicians, medical students and residents. In that particular study my colleagues and I found that residents who had some sort of spiritual belief values supporting them tended to have lower rates of depression and burnout.”
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen works to help doctors overcome feelings of burnout. She runs storytelling circles that allow doctors to talk with other medical professionals about what they see and experience each day. Says Remen, “The mechanism that I have found most effective for finding meaning in medicine has been community and the oldest way of finding meaning is storytelling.” In the film, doctors in one such storytelling circle help explain the ways in which they find meaning in their work.
Since doctors themselves come from all different religious backgrounds, it is important for them to learn how to speak with patients about their spiritual practices. Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, Senior Research Scholar at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, is another leader in the field of spirituality and healthcare. As the Associate Director of Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago, he helped train doctors to make sure they were able to meet the spiritual needs of their patients as well as their medical needs. Thoughtful conversations between Sulmasy and some of his students are featured in the documentary. Says Sulmasy, “This is not about proselytizing. This is not about imposing religion on anybody but about being open to the spiritual struggles of patients.” The challenge is teaching doctors how to provide compassionate spiritual care while not coming into conflict with their own faith.
Take a look
The feature documentary in which their stories are shared was filmed on location nationwide and was funded by the John Templeton Foundation. It serves as a comprehensive overview of the relationship between religion, spirituality and health. It weaves together compelling individual stories from doctors, patients, nurses, chaplains and caregivers. The lives they share on film are ones of personal transcendence, courage and dignity.
Science and religion have long been thought by many to be incompatible at best or enemies at worst. Now a new wind appears to be blowing through America. Health and spirituality are not two separate worlds. Our health is a sacred matter.