In the spirit of healing; Morehouse medical professors win grant to teach the medicinal power of spirituality – Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, GeorgiaJuly 12, 2007 |
by B. Denise Hawkins
When a pastor who is also an internist, and a “Christian who happens
to be a physician” get together, their conversations begin with
medicine but always end on religion, says Dr. Valencia Clay of the
Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
All those months of talking about what, to some, may seem like an
unlikely intersection of faith and medicine paid off this past summer
for Clay and Dr. Marvin Crawford, a professor of internal medicine at
Morehouse. Clay and Crawford applied for and won one of eight Faith and
Medicine Curricular Awards given by the National Institute for
Healthcare Research (NIHR) and the Philadelphia-based John Templeton
Foundation in August.
The $25,000 grant, makes Morehouse one of the nation’s first medical
schools, and the first historically Black college or university (HBCU),
to offer ground-breaking courses that explore spirituality and religion
in patient care.
The award-winning courses, which begin this school year, range from
African religious beliefs, death and dying to taking religious and
spiritual histories. Crawford who co-designed the program with Clay,
says the courses will be integrated into the required curriculum for
second- through fourth-year medical students.
While Morehouse may be the first HBCU to formally offer such medical
courses, the institution joins the ranks of a growing number of medical
schools that are crossing the boundary that has long existed between
science and religion. Courses on spirituality are being taught at
nearly twenty of the nation’s 126 medical schools, according to NIHR, a
non-profit healthcare institute that collects research on religion and
medicine. The growing number of medical schools offering such courses
represents what NIHR president Dr. David B. Larson calls “a new era in
medicine” – one that focuses on the treatment of the whole person:
body, mind, and spirit.
Studies show that 80 percent of Americans want doctors and other
health care providers to include religious or spiritual concepts in
their treatment, but only one out of ten doctors ever asks their
patients about spirituality.
While the empirical data is important, Crawford says, the larger
purpose it serves is to be able to put information out that says you
must be cognizant of your patient’s religious beliefs. Crawford is the
pastor of Newberry Chapel AME Church in Atlanta, and is concerned that
the separation between religious beliefs and medical treatment in the
African American community does a disservice to many patients.
“We know that religious beliefs are an integral part of the lives of
African Americans, but when they come into the health care setting we
tend to divorce those beliefs,” says Crawford.
One likely reason for that is education, says Clay, who adds, “At
Morehouse and other HBCUs, we are so intent on teaching and getting the
basics down, that we often forget our own history.”
For example, it is the church pastor, elders and deacons gathered
around the sick bed who constitute the primary consultation team for
many African Americans, Clay says. She adds that in some segments of
the African American community, the opinions of doctors don’t carry as
much weight as those of ministers.
For years, the two thirty-something medical professors have wrestled
with ways to bridge their religious beliefs with the study and delivery
“The development of the courses reflects the searching we were both going through,” says Crawford.
One of the most effective ways to develop team players, says
Crawford, is through education. The professors want to train future
doctors to not only feel comfortable with patients who are religious,
but to “be sensitive to their needs and not dismiss their faith or
spirituality in the healing process.”
The medical professors say it is also important for the clinicians
to be aware of their own faith perspectives as they work in the medical
Embracing spirituality and faith in medicine also means coping with
death and dying. As part of a practicum, medical students will be
required to follow a terminally ill patient from the time of admission
to the hospital, through death and even the burial process. Professors
and lecturers for the new courses are being enlisted from departments
throughout the college as well as from the local community. Clay and
Crawford have tapped local morticians to teach students about the
The goal of the program isn’t to undo such common cultural
practices, says Clay. “I just want patients to know that [physicians]
can be part of the team.”
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