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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Taking your spiritual temperature

Don't be surprised if your doctor asks about your religious beliefs and needs. A growing number of physicians are asking about patients' spiritual histories, says Harold Koenig, associate professor of psychiatry and internal medicine at Duke University, Durham, N.C.

Questions can include: Are your religious beliefs a source of comfort or stress during this illness? Will religious beliefs influence your medical decisions?

Koenig, who directs Duke's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health (www.dukespiritualityandhealth.org), compares such questions to taking someone's blood pressure — spiritually. "Doctors aren't acting as ministers," he says. "They're simply acquiring relevant information about how the patient copes with illness."

It's especially helpful for a serious, stressful illness, Koenig says, describing patients who couldn't "embrace their religious faith because they were angry at God. ... I tried to listen and validate their feelings but also say this turmoil could influence their health care. I emphasized that these feelings weren't uncommon, but that it was important to talk to [a chaplain] and work through them.

"Studies generally show that the religious person copes better and experiences better mental and physical health over time that affects their longevity and quality of life."

Koenig says doctors shouldn't force a spiritual history, recommend religious practice or provide counseling.


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