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In some areas of the United States, up to 90 percent of patients rely on religion for comfort or strength during times of serious illness. Religious coping behaviors include prayer, inspirational reading, participating in worship services and seeking support from clergy or congregation members. In studies that have objectively examined these behaviors and their relationship to health status, a connection has often been found.1 A recent review2 of more than 1,200 studies of religion and health reported that at least two thirds of the studies evaluated had shown significant associations between religious activity and better mental health, better physical health or lower use of health services.

Physicians should be aware of the role that religion plays in how patients cope with illness. Anxiety, depression and loss of hope may complicate the course of many diseases, interfering with compliance, self-care activities and motivation toward recovery. Scientists are only now beginning to discover the powerful effects that the mind and social relationships can have on physiologic processes, especially cardiovascular, neuroendocrine and immune function.3,4 Religious beliefs and practices are one method that patients use to modulate emotional distress during illness.

How does a physician address religious issues in the context of a medical visit or during acute hospitalization? The physician does so by taking a spiritual history that identifies religious or spiritual needs and then coordinates the resources needed to meet those needs.5 While recognizing the value of spirituality, many physicians feel uncomfortable addressing the topic of religion, and many patients may not expect a physician to ask (although such questions might be welcomed). Taking a spiritual history in a sensitive and appropriate manner is controversial, although most experts agree that proper timing and a patient-centered approach are essential elements for success. It is unnecessary to take a spiritual history for a patient who comes in for a wart removal. A religious or spiritual history is best obtained during a comprehensive medical evaluation, introduced naturally as part of the social history.

Unlike most other aspects of the medical history, simply taking a spiritual history is often the intervention. Frequently, all that is necessary is to listen to the patient's responses, providing presence and support, rather than demonstrating expertise in religious matters. While providing spiritual advice or direction is best left to the chaplain or to the patient's clergy, the spiritual history should not be deferred to others. If the physician asks these questions, it signals to the patient that the physician cares about the patient's sources of hope and meaning during illness. When religion is what gives meaning, purpose and hope, patients are often comforted by sharing beliefs with their physician. Likewise, if there are religious doubts or anxieties present, sharing these feelings with a caring, accepting physician may help with resolution.

Taking a religious or spiritual history may have far-reaching effects on the patient's ability to cope with illness as well as on the physician-patient relationship, affecting compliance and possibly future effectiveness of medical interventions. Even in this managed-care era of shorter and shorter patient visits, taking two to five minutes to inquire about and listen to patients talk about this area of their lives may actually save time in the long run. “Cure sometimes; relieve often; comfort always,” is really what it is all about, and taking a spiritual history may be one way to do it more effectively.

In this issue of American Family Physician, Anandarajah and Hight6 provide physicians with an instrument, the HOPE questionnaire, which will help in taking a spiritual history. The HOPE questionnaire is useful because it is relatively brief, it is patient-centered and introduces the topic gradually, and it is respectful of the beliefs of most religious or spiritual traditions.

As a young family physician nearly 15 years ago, I became interested in this subject after repeatedly asking patients the question that, unknown to me, was to become the H part of Anandarajah and Hight's HOPE scale: What has given you hope, meaning, comfort and strength during this medical illness? Because so many patients gave a religious response when I asked that question and so many seemed to deeply appreciate my asking, I ultimately directed my research career into this area. Physicians, too, may benefit from taking a spiritual history.

In recent times, I have heard more and more patients express dissatisfaction with medical care and more and more physicians indicate that their job has become less fulfilling. I believe that physicians and patients may be responding to how mechanistic the practice of medicine has become. Bringing spirituality back into medicine may be what we all need.

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