Spirituality, religion and palliative care

Patrice Richardson

Abstract

As medical science has evolved, many conditions that once were thought to be “death sentences” have become chronic illness. In some ways, this makes death and dying more complicated, fraught with decisions about what care is appropriate and when to withhold or withdraw care. Studies have shown that most patients faced with life-threatening illness have spiritual needs that are not adequately addressed by their health care providers. The philosophy and practice of palliative care operates upon an understanding of whole person care, reflected in the muli-dimensional approach of the biopsychosocial model. One cannot provide whole-person care without giving consideration to the relevant spiritual needs held by patients with serious illness. As palliative care clinicians, we are uniquely positioned to work with teams/patients/families to explore the many variables that individuals and their families use as the guiding principles when making difficult decisions around end of life. While we are often consulted to manage physical symptoms, that is only part of our work. As we work on building relationships, both with our patients and their care team, we are often able to help facilitate communication that allows for mutually satisfactory goal setting. We are equipped to work with patients within their cultural contexts of which spirituality is a part. It is important to recognize the barriers to providing adequate spiritual care. The National Consensus Project has created clinical practice guidelines to provide a road map for the provision of quality palliative care. These guidelines delineate eight domains that are addressed through the provision of palliative care; the fifth domain gives attention to spiritual, religious and existential aspects of care. Guidelines recommend the use of standardized tools wherever possible to assess spiritual needs; referral to members of the interdisciplinary team who have specialized skills in addressing existential and spiritual concerns, and initiating contact and communication with community spiritual providers as requested by patients and their families. Palliative care providers are also called to be advocates for the spiritual and religious rituals of patients and families, especially at the time of death.