Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Spirituality and Health: An Exploratory Study of Hospital Patients' Perspectives

Academic journal article Australian Health Review

Spirituality and Health: An Exploratory Study of Hospital Patients' Perspectives

Article excerpt

What is known about the topic? There is a rapidly developing body of research that demonstrates an increasing awareness of the important links between religion and health, but is limited in Australian application.

What does this paper add? This paper provides contextually relevant qualitative and quantitative data on patient perspectives, including how patients wish to be treated by health staff in relation to their beliefs and practices. The Australian perspective also provides a valuable counterpoint to US-dominated research in the global community.

What are the implications for practitioners? The research findings indicate that practitioners need to recognise and respond to the role of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in patients' health journeys. The discussion suggests some practical ways of doing this which sit comfortably within the patient-centred approach.

Definitions of spirituality and religion, and the relationship between them, vary within the literature. The dominant trend is to conceptualise spirituality as more fluid, eclectic and individual than religion, which is viewed as more structured, formal, embedded in tradition and doctrine, with rituals taking place in a shared community of practice. Spirituality and religion are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In order to encompass the diversity of patient experiences, this research adopted a broad definition of spirituality as '. . .an inclusive term, covering all pathways that lead to meaning and purpose'1 (p. 38) and 'involving body and spirit, emotions and thought, activity and passivity, social and individual aspects of life'2 (p. 5).

Spirituality/religion in Australia

Spirituality/religion has been interwoven into the lives of Aboriginal Australians, with migrants to the continent introducing a diverse range of beliefs and practices in the past 200 years. Spirituality/religion is important for many contemporary Australians; for example, nearly three-quarters of the population (74%) profess a religious affiliation, with higher proportions in rural areas (86%) and elderly populations (83%).3 Christianity, the dominant religion in Australia, is experiencing increased divergence of core practices and beliefs, while Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism are growing, as are 'New Age' and 'nature religions'.4

Although census data point to an expanding secular population and an overall decline in traditional religious denominations, it appears that spirituality may be on the increase.5 As Bouma puts it, 'Spiritualities of choice as opposed to religions of birth are growing substantially in Australia'4 (p. 20). Tacey agrees, arguing that 'Spirituality has become diverse, plural, manifold, and seems to have countless forms of expression, many of which are highly individualistic and personal'1 (p. 38).

Spirituality/religion and health: an overview

Contemporary Western medicine is increasingly exploring the relationship between spirituality/religion and health.6 There is a growing acceptance that understanding someone's spiritual beliefs and practices can be a vital source of information about:

* how they understand health, illness, diagnoses, recovery and loss7,8;

* strategies they use to cope with illness9,10;

* their resilience, resources and sense of support10-12;

* decision making about treatment, medicine and self-care13,14;

* expectations of, and relationship with, health staff15;

* day-to-day health practices and lifestyle choices16,17; and

* overall health outcomes.18-22

Many authors argue that spirituality or religiosity per se does not necessarily indicate better health outcomes because the relationship between beliefs, practices and health can be negative or neutral as well as positive (R. D'Souza, radio interview: Psyche and soul, on Compass, ABC Radio National, 2003).12,20,23-31 The critical factor is not if someone is spiritual/religious, but how they are spiritual/religious. …

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