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There's a change coming to the sick room

By Kay Stroud - posted Thursday, 25 July 2013

There is increasing acceptance, both in the community and in the medical fraternity that we benefit from a holistic approach to healthcare. From a patient perspective, being consulted about their spirituality is important to Australians, and there's a general belief that spirituality helps recovery.

These assertions formed the opening part of Associate Professor Kellie Bennett's presentation at the recent Compassion, Spirituality and Health Conference held earlier this month in Adelaide.

She's the recipient of a Templeton Foundation research grant awarded to her to assess spirituality content in medical education in Australian universities nationally, as she also gauges the attitudes of Deans, teachers, students, and practitioners to the use of spirituality in patient care.


Dr Bennett works in the School of Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Western Australia. When she first looked at the curriculum on joining staff there, she was "surprised to see that there was nothing about spirituality in the curriculum", although she later discovered it was part of a 'hidden curriculum' that was often rather random.

UWA has made some progress, offering elective units like Spirituality, Suffering and Healing. But Dr Bennett is looking towards an integrated model where spirituality would be embedded into the curriculum.

We sat down and talked one day between sessions at the conference. She said that there are some good things going on in Australian hospitals, including the work of chaplains, counsellors and nurses, but doctors are seeking guidance and clarification from the whole community as to their role in the use of spirituality in medicine, bearing in mind that what doctors don't need is yet another job to add to a very long list.

With the Association of American Colleges,  Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Organisations and the World Health Organisation all on board as to the importance of the recognition of spirituality in healthcare, and the majority of US and UK medical schools already providing it in the curriculum, the Australian medical scene is poised to start considering the complexities of how, what , who, how much, when: that is, how to move to a biopsychosocial-spiritual model of treatment.

Bennett's aim is to have some sort of national standards and a national framework written up that includes student competencies that every medical student could possess. Doctors need to be able to communicate; to at least open up the dialogue about spirituality with the patient, she says. And it's not just the patients who benefit. She feels that there's a serious gap in student and practitioner self-care.

Coming from a genetics background, Dr Bennett now does some research in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy and is dedicated to evidence-based medicine. She spoke of "incredible research coming out" where you can see actual neurological changes from the practice of meditation.


She feels that the fact that meditation is found to be beneficial, has very low harm associated with it, and that there's a significant body of corroborating literature, needs to be communicated to people.

Everyone from Hugh Jackman to some prisoners to my real estate agent is doing it. "Nothing has opened my eyes like transcendental meditation has. It makes me calm and happy…", Jackman explains. And considering the literature Dr Bennett refers to, it also makes him healthier.

As she takes on board how the US, UK Brazil and Canada have introduced spirituality to their medical curricula, we discussed how complementary and alternative medicine is a step ahead. "They've always been patient-driven".

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About the Author

Kay Stroud is the media spokesperson and legislative liaison for Christian Science in Queensland.

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