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Taking Your Spiritual Pulse

Taking Your Spiritual Pulse

WebMD Feature

Oct. 2, 2000 -- Have any allergies? Past surgeries? Do you use caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes? Rhonda Oziel has been asked the same questions by doctors so many times she thought she could recite the checklist by heart. Then one day a doctor deviated from the drill.

The occasion was a checkup with her new internist, Christina Puchalski, MD. Near the end of the visit, the doctor asked Oziel if she considered herself spiritual or religious. What sorts of beliefs sustained her in difficult times?

"I was receptive to the questions, and it made me feel very good to have that discussion," says Oziel, a 50-year-old Washington, D.C., librarian. "It made me feel my doctor looks at me as a human and not just a medical specimen."

We'd all prefer that our doctors see us as more than just another backache or sore throat. But do we really want strangers with stethoscopes inquiring about our spiritual beliefs? Increasingly, researchers say we do. And, in response, medical schools are now beginning to teach doctors-in-training to take a spiritual history along with the patient's medical history.

Many Nonbelievers Agree

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania surveyed 177 outpatients at the university hospital and found surprisingly high support for such "spiritual intakes." Some 94% of those who had religious or spiritual beliefs felt physicians should ask about those beliefs, according to the study published Aug. 9, 1999, in the Archives of Internal Medicine. And more than half of those who professed no significant beliefs still thought doctors should at least inquire. In comparison, just 16% of patients said they would not welcome such questions from their doctors.