Student Group Addresses Role of Spirituality in Medicine

In dealing with a health crisis, patients will often turn to their religious beliefs and practices to help them cope. Yet many physicians and medical students are unsure how to address the spiritual needs of their patients. At the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine, Aamir Hussain is working to close that gap.

Hussain, a first-year medical student at Pritzker, has started a student organization called The Spirituality and Medicine Interest Group. Launched last fall, the group aims to create a safe space for medical students to have meaningful discussions about the relationship between spirituality, religion, and healthcare.

“The goal is to have an ongoing dialogue on this topic,” Hussain says.  “When we think about intersectionality — which means people have many different identities — we need to be mindful that religion is an important part of that unique identity. Religion is viewed as a social outcome to health.”

The group is open to all medical students regardless of their faith background, but Hussain — who is Muslim — felt it was important to also include students who are “religiously unaffiliated” to bring a diversity of perspectives to the conversation.

“It’s important to include religiously unaffiliated perspectives in any conversation around religion and spirituality,” says Hussain. “It’s helpful for all medical students to have some familiarity with conversations related to spirituality in order to better connect with patients.”

There is a growing nationwide trend among medical schools to help students relate to their patients’ spiritual side as the medical profession begins to recognize the important role that religion and spirituality play in the lives of many Americans.

Research shows that religious beliefs and practices are widespread in the U.S. A 2014 Gallup poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe that religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems.”

Religion and spirituality are particularly important in urban communities. These areas are largely populated by racial and ethnic minorities who are likely to base their healthcare decisions on their religious beliefs and culture.

“The University of Chicago can get people of diverse backgrounds — Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and the non-religious,” Hussain says. “Jehovah’s Witnesses do not accept blood transfusions for religious reasons.  Muslims don’t eat pork products. So we need to be able to tailor our treatment to accommodate those needs.”

Meeting the needs of racial and ethnic minorities can be critical to alleviating health disparities within these populations. Physicians and medical students must provide care that’s sensitive to the cultural and religious values of such patients, Hussain says.

“When talking to a patient, if that patient mentions that their religion is important, it helps create a better doctor-patient bond if a doctor is sensitive to that,” he says.

Aasim Padela, director of the Initiative on Islam and Medicine and an emergency medicine physician at the University of Chicago Medical Center, believes The Spirituality and Medicine Interest Group at Pritzker can serve as a model for how students can elevate the conversation about spirituality and medicine.

“Aamir [Hussain] has tapped into the idea of how we think about religion in healthcare. To be a better healthcare provider, one thing to understand is the ways in which religion influences patients’ behavior,” Padela says. “There is still a long way to go nationally. The community of physicians who have a spiritual lens have a longer way to go. We’re still trying to figure out how to have these conversations.”

Hussain believes his interest group is helping to increase cultural competence among medical students and physicians, which is keeping in line with Pritzker School of Medicine’s commitment to diversity.

And his efforts have not gone unnoticed. Interfaith Youth Core has awarded The Spirituality and Medicine Interest Group a Germanacos Fellowship, a $5,000 grant to develop a medical discussion series focused on the intersections between spirituality, religion, and medicine. Interfaith Youth Core is a Chicago-based nonprofit that aims to make interfaith cooperation a social norm in the U.S. by promoting inter-religious dialogue and community service.

Hussain worked with the Interfaith Youth Core as an undergraduate pre-med student at Georgetown University, where he was also a theology minor. “I was interested in continuing that work in medical school,” he says.

Despite his ambitions, Hussain found that religion can be a delicate topic in medical school. During his first few months at Pritzker, religion was rarely discussed, and when the topic came up, he found that his medical school colleagues were uncomfortable sharing their personal views in an academic setting.

Now, as the group has progressed, Hussain is grateful to be providing a platform through which medical students can reflect on their religious and spiritual values.

“The goal is to bring professors, researchers, and students together to discuss how religion and spirituality influence the practice of medicine,” he says.●

Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.