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How health is related to the search for meaning, purpose, and connection

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While spirituality played a significant role in health care for centuries, technological advances in the 20th century overshadowed this more human side of medicine. Christina Puchalski, M.D.’94, RESD’97, founder and director of the George Washington University (GW) Institute for Spirituality and Health and professor of medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences (SMHS), and co-authors published a commentary in Academic Medicine on the history of spirituality and health, the movement to reclaim medicine’s spiritual roots, and the future of this field. You can check out the Academic Medicine paper online, “Spirituality and Health: The Development of a Field.”

Spirituality, defined as a person’s search for meaning, purpose, and connection, is now incorporated into the curricula of more than 75 percent of U.S. medical schools — curricula that was developed and implemented first at SMHS. In 2012, Oxford published the first textbook on spirituality and health. National and International organizations have recognized the role of spirituality in patient-centered care. This didn’t happen without the tireless efforts of Puchalski, her colleagues at GW including Jim Blatt, M.D., director of the Clinical Learning and Simulation Skills Center and professor of medicine at SMHS, the support she received at GW, and grants from organizations such as the John Templeton Foundation.

“The integration of spirituality in to our medical culture is crucial for creating compassionate, patient-centered physicians,” said Puchalski, according to the February 18, 2014 news release, GW spirituality and health pioneer publishes paper on development of the field. “It changes our health system from merely emphasizing physical suffering. Rather, physicians are taught to respond to all patients’ suffering with compassion, recognizing that health is more than the absence of disease. This is when healing, defined as patients’ ability to find hope and meaning even in the midst of suffering, can occur.”

The Academic Medicine paper includes:

  • A report on the National Competencies in Spirituality and Health (NCSH), which was created at a consensus conference of faculty from seven medical schools and is being reported in the paper for the first time. The NCSH will organize efforts in this developing field within medical education and in national and international organizations.
  • Information on the GW Institute for Spirituality and Health-Templeton Reflection Rounds Initiative, a program supported by the John Templeton Foundation. The program provides clerkship students the opportunity to reflect on patient encounters and develop their own inner resources to address the suffering of others.
  • Commentary on the future direction of the field of spirituality and health.

“In the coming years, we hope the field of spirituality and health will have a more global reach, with a focus on interprofessional education,” said Puchalski, in the news release. “We also anticipate a full integration of spirituality and health education: From the first year of medical school, into residency, and continuing into professional development.” Additional authors on the paper include Blatt; Mikhail Kogan, M.D., medical director at the GW Center for Integrative Medicine; and Amy Butler, Ph.D., executive director for foundation relations at GW.

You also may wish to check out sites such as, "GW Professor of Medicine Co-Authors Study of Spirituality in Medical Education in Journal of Religion and Health" and "GW Convenes International Consensus Conference on Spirituality in Health Care." Or see, "GWish Director Mentioned for Work in Teaching Spirituality and Health."

About the GW Institute of Spirituality and Health

The George Washington University (GW) Institute of Spirituality and Health (GWish) was established in May 2001 as a leading organization on education and clinical issues related to spirituality and health. Under the direction of Founder and Director Christina M. Puchalski, M.D., professor of medicine at the GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences, GWish is changing the face of health care through innovative programs for physicians and other members of the multidisciplinary health care team, including clergy and chaplains.

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