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Fall Ministries - Chaplains

Research seeks to examine role of religion in health decisions


Would you like your doctor to pray with you or your nurse to provide spiritual support?

How does the work of health care chaplains affect the course of sickness and recovery?

If a physician prescribes prayer and claims that religious faith and practice is good for health, could it be malpractice not to prescribe such options?

Such questions engage the Rev. Larry VandeCreek, director of pastoral research at the HealthCare Chaplaincy in New York. He takes inspiration from St. Anselm, patron of scholastics, who believed that “faith seeks understanding.” VandeCreek, who holds a doctorate in ministry, is a behavioral scientist and an ordained Presbyterian minister.

After 13 years as a therapist in a medical practice and many years of pastoral care and academic work, VandeCreek knows that patients often raise religious and spiritual questions with their doctor. Many physicians find “competent ways” to handle such inquiries, he said, and recognize the risks involved. But others do not and are not trained to advocate for religious or spiritual interventions among their patients.

Increasingly chaplains have to demonstrate their utility to health care providers. They would be aided, VandeCreek said, if providers had a clear understanding of what kinds of pastoral interventions are helpful with specific types of patients.

VandeCreek, along with Stephen Paget, physician-in-chief of the Department of Medicine’s rheumatology division at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, are examining styles of coping among some 180 arthritis sufferers at the hospital. “If we can determine what the functions of religious practice and spirituality tend to be among a given patient population, we can help chaplains develop the kinds of skills that will be most helpful in serving a particular population,” VandeCreek said.

He is also collaborating with Dr. Karolynn Siegel, director of the Center for the Psychosocial Study of Health and Illness at Columbia University’s School of Public Health, to examine the role of religion and spirituality as a resource for promoting public health. They hope to determine what unique contributions religious institutions make in health promotion and disease prevention and establish how religious beliefs influence patient and family decisions about medical treatment and end-of-life care.

The primary fruit of all these inquiries must be to inform clinical practice, said VandeCreek. While the study is not yet published, preliminary data show that patients were most satisfied when the chaplain prayed, possessed spiritual sensitivity, seemed to be listening to them and let them say what was on their minds.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000