Spirituality & Medicine: A Family Doctor’s Perspective

Series: Summer Medical Institute 2012

by Lisa Ruschak July 26, 2012

Should we share our faith with our patients? I returned from SMI to the “real world” of 15-minute overbooked appointments, 2 weeks’ worth of mail and a bit of culture shock. During SMI we diligently worked to broach spiritual topics with everyone we met. Yet, in the world of HIPAA, employers, and differing beliefs between staff members, what is the correct role of spirituality in medicine?

If I know a medicine will cure or significantly alleviate a patient’s illness, but the prescription provider refuses to cover the medicine, I will write letters and make multiple phone calls through endless phone trees to obtain it, though some may consider my demand for the certain medication a “preference.” Yet, even though I know the root cause of much of the suffering in my patients’ lives, I still often hesitate to share the hope contained in this knowledge.

When a man blames his hypertension on stress, do I just hand him a prescription? Or do I pray over his daily struggles, both offering a show of concern and demonstrating a proven stress management technique?

When another man returns with chest pain caused by his crippling anxiety. Do I supply a medical treatment for his brain chemistry alone, or do I remind him that there is an omnipotent father who loves him and desires to “prosper him and not to harm him, to give him a hope and a future”? Does he leave only with a prescription for an SSRI, or also with a prescription to read my favorite Psalms? Will I enter into his life enough to dispense not just medical knowledge, but also the personal stories of my own dark times that caused me to recommend those Psalms?

When a young teen returns with her third STI this year, do I give her another round of antibiotics and a lecture, or do I try to introduce her to the lover of my soul, who can provide her with the all-encompassing love, acceptance and companionship she is so desperately seeking? Can I share the Abba Father, she never had?

Critics may argue that faith is a personal issue and the power differential between us and our clients should prevent us from “imposing” our beliefs on others. However, we widely use terms as “consultation” and “second opinion” because we recognize as a society that medicine is the act of sharing an educated opinion. No, I do not have spiritual discussions with every patient. But, as I return from SMI, I am reminded to begin each day with prayer for my patients and for my self-centered heart. I pray that I will be sensitive to the Spirit, to hear that prompting to begin the discussion when appropriate. When I am “always ready to give an answer for the hope that is in me,” and to do so with humility and grace, it is usually received as the act of love and caring as intended, even though the words may fall on rocky soil.

– Lisa Ruschak, MD

Editors’ Note: Dr. Ruschak is a family medicine doctor in rural Georgia and a devoted mother of two adorable children. She has mainly worked with underserved communities, both urban and rural, throughout her career. She and her family joined the SMI team for a week, conducting door-to-door health and spiritual screenings with the students. Drawing from her experiences in medicine and her spiritual walk, she was a tremendous source of encouragement and blessing to the team.

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