While training to be doctors, most of us learned that professional ethics dictate that we not encroach our beliefs on our patients. When a person seeks healthcare, they are notably vulnerable. The exam room is no place to bring up the discussion of religion. However, patients are spiritual as well as physical beings and come with their own sets of beliefs. In fact, a Pew Research Center survey revealed that approximately 89% of Americans believe in God. Although we should not introduce our own beliefs in the doctor-patient relationship, there is room for spirituality in medicine.

A patient’s spiritual beliefs impact their health and may play a role in the medical decisions they make. This is especially true for end-of-life care. Most of us know that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow blood transfusions, and this belief plays a critical role when they may be bleeding profusely. This is a very obvious example, but many choices are determined based on spiritual beliefs.

How can a doctor incorporate spirituality into medicine?

  • Listen to the patient. What we may judge to be a foolish decision may be in align with the patient’s very strong religious beliefs.
  • Allow patients to discuss their beliefs. We do not have to share the same beliefs or agree with them, but we do need to understand that the patient has them.
  • Discuss evidence-based medicine with patients. Try to convince them on the science. Do not try to dissuade them away from their beliefs. You will lose that battle every time.
  • If a patient wants to pray, allow them to pray. We do not need to join in, but it is rather insensitive to not allow a sick, or even dying, patient to express their prayers.
  • Remember that you are there as a medical provider, not a spiritual advisor.
  • If a patient asks you about your beliefs, tell them without trying to convert them. A simple, “I am Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc” will suffice. Just because you are a doctor, doesn’t mean you don’t have your own set of beliefs. You are not a robo-doc. Just be careful of crossing the line of proselytizing.
  • Know what is important to the patient.
  • Try to understand how their belief plays into decisions they are making. We do not need to understand their religion, but it is helpful to try to know why they are choosing as they are.

In the US, common thinking tells us that there are pills to cure all ills. However, medication is only one part of the treatment. Over the past few decades, many studies revealed a positive impact on physical and mental health in those with religious beliefs. While we do not yet know the true impact of this correlation, it is imperative not to ignore the spirituality of a patient because it can contribute to their well-being.

Regarding end-of-life care, it is especially true to not neglect a patient’s spiritual beliefs. A patient is not just dying but most often fearing where they are headed after death. We need to allow them hope in something to look forward to with whatever their belief system entails.  Listening to a patient and having compassion are never wrong. What role will we allow spirituality in medicine?



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Dr. Linda Girgis MD, FAAFP, is a family physician in South River, New Jersey. She holds board certification from the American Board of Family Medicine and is affiliated with St. Peter’s University Hospital and Raritan Bay Hospital. Dr. Girgis earned her medical degree from St. George’s University School of Medicine. She completed her internship and residency at Sacred Heart Hospital, through Temple University and she was recognized as intern of the year. Over the course of her practice, Dr. Girgis has continued to earn awards and recognition from her peers and a variety of industry bodies, including: Patients’ Choice Award, 2011-2012, Compassionate Doctor Recognition, 2011-2012. Dr. Girgis’ primary goal as a physician remains ensuring that each of her patients receives the highest available standard of medical care.