Study finds spiritual care still rare at end of life

Church

Physicians and nurses at four Boston medical centers cited a lack of training to explain why they rarely provide spiritual care for terminally ill cancer patients - although most considered it an important part of treatment at the end of life.

"I was quite surprised that it was really just lack of training that dominated the reasons why," senior author Dr. Tracy Balboni, a radiation oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told Reuters Health.

Current U.S. palliative care guidelines encourage medical practitioners to pay close attention to religious and spiritual needs that may arise during a patient's end-of-life care.

However, the 204 physicians who participated in the study reported providing spiritual care to just 24 percent of their patients. Among 118 nurses, the figure was 31 percent.

The 69 patients with advanced cancers who took the survey reported even lower rates, saying 14 percent of nurses and six percent of physicians had provided them some sort of spiritual care.

Past research has shown that spiritual care for seriously ill patients improves their quality of life, increases their overall satisfaction with hospital care and decreases aggressive medical treatment, which may in turn result in lower overall health spending.

"There was a time when nurses and physicians may have said, 'That's not my job,' but I think the tides are changing," said palliative care researcher Betty Ferrell of City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment hospital in Duarte, California.

"I think we are realizing we can no longer ignore this aspect of care," said Ferrell, a professor of nursing who was not involved in the new study.

Yet the reasons why spiritual care is rarely incorporated into patient treatment and dialogue have been poorly understood.

To gain more insight, Balboni and her colleagues designed a survey - the first of its kind, to their knowledge - to compare attitudes toward spiritual care across randomly chosen patients, nurses and doctors in oncology departments at four hospitals.

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