Thursday, September 20, 2012

The spiritual assessment in family medicine: unnecessary or essential?

- Kenny Lin, MD

Since it became possible to post online comments on AFP content earlier this year, no single article has prompted as many comments as "The Spiritual Assessment," published in the September 15th issue. The range of comments thus far reflects family physicians' diversity of views on this topic. For example, while one reader opined that spiritual concerns have "little to do with improving the health of our patients," another countered, "I do not think this article goes far enough in promoting this type of spiritual health assessment." Another reader argued that the spiritual assessment should "not be elevated to the status of another vital sign we must always take." Some readers expressed concerns that physicians might seek to impose their religious beliefs on vulnerable patients, while another suggested that "many physicians seem to have more fear of [discussing] spiritual issues than the patients do."

In the article, Drs. Aaron Saguil and Karen Phelps suggest assessing older patients, hospitalized patients, and patients with worsening or terminal illness, who are more likely to be interested in sharing their spiritual or religious beliefs. Other patients may bring up their faith or spiritual practices without prompting in the course of a normal conversation. Since 80 percent of patients and family physicians perceive religion to be important, according to the authors, acknowledging and supporting spiritual beliefs is a key component of holistic, patient-centered care:

The spiritual assessment allows physicians to support patients by stressing empathetic listening, documenting spiritual preferences for future visits, incorporating the precepts of patients' faith traditions into treatment plans, and encouraging patients to use the resources of their spiritual traditions and communities for overall wellness. Conducting the spiritual assessment also may help strengthen the physician-patient relationship and offer physicians opportunities for personal renewal, resiliency, and growth.

We invite other readers to share their perspectives on the role of the spiritual assessment in family medicine by posting a comment on the article, posting a comment to this blog, or sending an e-mail to