By Victoria White
GAINESVILLE, Fla.---Can spirituality improve health? A University of Florida researcher is trying to find out, using a new scientific survey to put religion under the microscope.
Dr. Robert L. Hatch, an assistant professor of community health and family medicine in UF's College of Medicine, has designed a 26-question survey that attempts to capture attitudes and activities across a wide spectrum of organized religions and personal belief systems.
The survey asks respondents if they believe life has a purpose, if they believe in a power greater than themselves and if they believe there is life after death. Regarding actions, they are asked if they apologize when they wrong someone, if they reflect upon their behavior, and how frequently they pray, meditate and participate in spiritual activities with other people.
The survey can be used by researchers who want a scientific instrument for determining how spiritual patients are to determine its effect on health. Hatch plans to conduct such studies himself after he further refines the questionnaire in the coming months.
"I am convinced from my life and from what I've seen with my patients that the spiritual realm is very important," Hatch said. "I've seen people who had no spiritual connection who have struggled tremendously with things, then seen people who had such a connection not be so tormented. They've handled pain better. From talking to them, I got the sense that their spiritual beliefs and practices helped them."
Hatch discussed his efforts to measure spiritual activities and beliefs at the recent Society of Teachers of Family Medicine's national conference in Kiawah, S.C.
Scientific studies of religion and health outcomes have had mixed results, with some demonstrating a benefit and others showing no effect. Hatch suspects some study designs have been flawed, leading to contradictory conclusions.
"The problem is that in scientific studies you need to quantify suspected causes and effects, but it is very hard to measure the idea of spirituality," Hatch said. "Researchers have been defining it differently. By and large, they have been exploring organized religious activities in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But I think you can be spiritual and never go to church or you can be a regular churchgoer without being that spiritual. So if you just look at formal religious participation, you're missing something."
To many physicians, who are trained to seek scientific answers to medical questions, the idea of a spiritual force changing events may seem implausible. Yet in a wide variety of civilizations throughout history, millions have believed in a higher power and turned to religion for aid and comfort.
"If for no other reason, spirituality might make a difference because it gives a person a support network. There is very clear data that people who have social support do much better than others," Hatch said.
But it may be more than that. Hatch noted one recent experiment showed a group of severely ill people who were prayed for did better than those who were not.
"Some of the best evidence spirituality can make a difference is Alcoholics Anonymous," Hatch said. "People have struggled with how to treat alcoholism for thousands of years, with medicine and psychiatry having little success. Then along came AA. With its spiritual approach, it has had by far the best success."
Dr. Kathleen Kantwell says religion has helped her through difficult times. Nine years ago, the Gainesville pediatrician was hit by a car while riding a bicycle, leaving her paralyzed.
"I find great peace and comfort in knowing that there is a God and there is a life after death," said Kantwell, 47, who retired last year. "It helps me go through the suffering we have to in this life."
She thinks her intensive prayers and the prayers of others may have helped her regain some strength in one of her hands. "The doctors had no explanation for it," she said. "It was kind of miraculous."
"We're looking for empirical evidence on spirituality because physicians, rightly so, want that to back up the things that we do," Hatch said. "But if spirituality can be helpful, we need to make patients aware of that. At the same time, however, we don't want to alienate patients and we must be respectful of their own individual beliefs.
Materials provided by University of Florida Health Science Center. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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