September 20, 2011
A $2.6-million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation will allow Farr Curlin, MD, and Daniel Sulmasy, MD, co-directors of the Program on Medicine and Religion at the University of Chicago, to create a Clinical Scholars Program designed to provide the essential infrastructure for the spiritual renewal of the medical profession.
The Program will begin by recruiting eight University of Chicago faculty to help take the spiritual “pulse” of medicine by researching the relationship between professional satisfaction and the spiritual lives of physicians.
“Medicine is a sacred practice,” says Curlin, associate professor of medicine and associate director of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics. “We’ll probe how physicians relate their work to the religious traditions they hold and how they could see their work as having moral and spiritual meaning.”
Arete has been involved since the Program on Medicine and Religion was conceived five years ago, also with the help of a Templeton grant. More recently with the Clinical Scholars Program, Arete has helped visualize the initial concept and plan how to get there; provided successful models and critical feedback; coordinated efforts across campus and approached potential donors.
“None of this would have come together without Arete’s direction and connections,” Curlin says.
Exploring new ground
Over the years, there has been much scholarship on the impact of religion on patients and health care outcomes but virtually none on the spirituality of the practice of medicine, i.e., the religious characteristics of physicians and how physicians’ religious commitments shape the clinical encounter. This has been seen as a threat to medicine’s scientific principles “because it introduces personal and private elements,” Curlin says.
Nevertheless, religion and spirituality are “inescapably” linked to how a physician practices, Curlin says. “In fact, spiritual beliefs and traditions are among the best resources that physicians can and should draw upon.”
Recent surveys conducted by Curlin and colleagues found that physicians are more spiritual than many people realize. Physicians are as likely to have a religious affiliation as members of the general population. They are more likely to attend religious services regularly. And two-thirds of them carry religion into other parts of their lives.
(The Program defines “spirituality” as the ways in which a person habitually conducts his life in relationship to the question of transcendence and “religion” as adherence to a set of institutional beliefs and practices.)
Most physicians endorse the importance of addressing spiritual concerns of patients, particularly in the context of life, death and serious illness, says Sulmasy, professor of medicine and ethics and associate director of the MacLean Center. “Physicians and ministers face some of the same questions, but we think medicine can be vigorously scientific as well as deeply spiritual.”
In addition to exploring such issues, the grant will help develop a new field, the spirituality of medicine. “We’ll create and support a community of scholars with training in religion and medical science who could become leaders in this new interdisciplinary field,” Sulmasy says. “And there’s no better place to do this than the University of Chicago with top medical and divinity schools.”
The Clinical Scholars Program will be modeled on another University asset—the MacLean Center, which after twenty years is the leading clinical ethics program in the country and has trained more physicians in ethics that any other program in the world.
“The Clinical Scholars Program will go a long way toward developing the Program on Medicine and Religion into the world’s leading center for research, policy and intellectual discourse regarding the intersection of religion and the practice of medicine,” says Ken Olliff, co-director of Arete.
By Greg Borzo