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How Spirituality Guides These Three Doctors

As healthcare providers dealing with the stress of the profession, there are times when many doctors feel that tapping into a higher purpose—or even praying—might be a helpful way to cope.

Whether you’re spiritual, religious — or neither — the Medscape Physician Lifestyle & Happiness Report 2023 asked if you have a religious or spiritual belief. Turns out 69% of physicians shared that they have a spiritual or religious practice.

Tapping Into the Universe

Nick Shamie, MD, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in spine surgery at UCLA School of Medicine in Los Angeles, says the constant challenges of making life-and-death decisions offer an opportunity to check in with a higher power.

Dr Nick Shamie

“Sometimes when I’m going into a tough surgery or have a tough situation, I pause and think about how this isn’t about me and the situation I’m in,” says Shamie, whose family is Muslim. “It’s about the whole universe. I feel like someone, or some being, is looking over my shoulders, and if my intentions are good, I’ll be fine. The person I’m going to take care of will be fine. That’s how I use my faith.”

Dr Jill Carnahan

Having a belief in something greater than herself also fuels Jill Carnahan, MD, a family medicine physician and functional medicine expert in Boulder, Colorado.

“This is key for me as a physician,” says Carnahan, author of Unexpected : Finding Resilience through Functional Medicine, Science, and Faith. “I urge physicians to think about their source of strength. That’s not necessarily even religious. It could be meditation or being in nature.”

Carnahan likes to share with patients that there are lessons that can come from being ill ― whether treating ill patients or struggling with one’s own illness.

“I like to teach this idea of illness as a teacher,” says Carnahan, who has Crohn’s disease and is a cancer survivor. “This is tough, but what you’re saying here is that there is meaning or purpose to this experience. It brings awareness to your life that may not have been there before.”

Often illness is our body’s way of getting our attention that our life, relationships, or work need adjustment. Illness can be a reminder to make changes. “For example, a diagnosis of autoimmunity may be a reminder to take better care of ourselves, or a diagnosis of cancer may cause us to get out of an unhealthy relationship or change jobs to do something more fulfilling, as we have increased awareness of the brevity of life.”

When patients are affected by illness, pain, reduced functionality, and even imminent death, understanding the experience is difficult, and finding any purpose in it may seem impossible. Still, studies show that those who find meaning in the experience cope better with their illness.

Finding that meaning may be a strong driver of survival and may be positively related to hope, belief, and happiness.

Spirituality Supports Patients

Even if you’re not religious yourself, it can be helpful to support a patient who opts to pray before an arduous procedure, says Sharyar Baradaran, DDS, a periodontist specializing in gum surgery in Beverly Hills, California.

Dr Sharyar Baradaran

“I’ve had patients who go into meditation mode, or they say a prayer before I start surgery,” he says. “I take that opportunity to connect. In that instance, we hold hands. I want them to know that I understand what they’re going through and how they’re trying to find the courage to undergo surgery.”

When Shamie was a child, his father described religion as embodying the basic tenet of being good to others. “I’ve taken that to heart,” he says. “All religions, all faiths have that as a central premise.”

These doctors agree that when you take the time to stop and hold a patient’s hand, bow your head during their prayer, or acknowledge or speak for a few moments about their faith, especially during a health crisis, surgery, or challenging diagnosis, patients appreciate it and develop an even deeper connection with you.

Baradaran believes spirituality can play an important role in how healthcare providers care for patients. Though it may not be widely discussed or reported, and physicians may find little time and space to address patients’ spiritual needs, there is growing sensitivity regarding spirituality in healthcare. One study found that while physicians understand its importance, nurses are more apt to integrate spirituality into practice.

“No matter the religion, if you’re spiritual, it means you’re listening and being respectful,” says Baradaran, who is Jewish. “There are times that I’m not familiar with the prayers my patients are saying, but I always take them in, absorb them, and respect them. This allows me to have a deeper connection with them which is wonderful.”

Shamie says that he turns to his faith in good times as well as tough ones.

“I see a lot of people who are dealing with very difficult situations, and it’s not their choice to be in this position,” he says. “At those moments, I think to myself how fortunate I am that I’m not experiencing what this individual or family is going through. I do thank God at that time. I appreciate the life I have, and when I witness hardships, it resets my appreciation….”

For Carnahan, faith is about becoming comfortable with the inevitable uncertainty of life. It’s also about finding ways to tap into the day’s stresses.

“As physicians, we’re workaholics, and one in four of us are burnt out,” she says. “One solution that really works is to step back from the day-to-day grind and find time to pray or meditate or be in nature.”

There are times when a tragedy occurs, and despite your most intense efforts, a patient may die. Those experiences can be crushing to a physician. However, to guide you through the loss of a patient or the daily juggles of managing your practice, Carnahan suggests finding time every morning to focus on the day ahead and how you connect with the universe.

“I take 15 minutes in the morning and think about how I will bring love to the world,” she says. “If you look for the miracles and the good and the unexpected, that gratitude shift allows your mind to be transformed by what’s happening. It’s often in those moments that you’ll realize again why you went into medicine in the first place.”

Doctors Without Faith

So, what does this mean if you’re among the 25% of physicians in the Medscape report who do not have a religious or spiritual leaning and aren’t apt to be spiritually minded when it comes to your patients? An article on KevinMD points out that atheist physicians are often in the closet about their atheism since they usually bow their heads or keep a respectful silence when a patient or their family offers a prayer request before surgery or a prayer of thanks after a procedure.

The retired atheist physician who penned the piece reminds us that nonreligious doctors are good people with a high moral compass who may not believe in an afterlife. However, that means they try to make their patients’ quality of life the best they can.

Lambeth Hochwald is a New York City–based journalist who covers health, relationships, trends, and issues of importance to women. She’s also a longtime professor at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

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  • Posted on February 22, 2023