Program on medicine and religion names new faculty scholars

Group's focus will be on whether physician spirituality shields against burnout

May 3, 2013

The University of Chicago Medicine's Program on Medicine and Religion has selected its second round of faculty scholars whose focus will be on the relationship between a physician's spirituality and their ability to deal with the pressures of practicing medicine.

"These scholars are poised to deepen and expand scholarship regarding religion and medicine," said Farr Curlin, MD, associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Program on Medicine and Religion.

There is a growing list of factors contributing to feelings of burnout and dissatisfaction among doctors. Increasing technology, the fragmentation and bureaucratization of care, and the growing pressure to see more patients as remuneration declines are all taking a toll.

In fact, a study done last year, results of which were published in JAMA Internal Medicine, found that almost half of the nearly 7,300 physicians surveyed suffered from at least one symptom of burnout. And physicians on the frontlines, such as those in family, internal and emergency medicine, experienced the most difficulties.

"It's a little dangerous to look at spirituality as a kind of vaccine against burnout, but it would be valuable to be able to show that physicians who have spiritual practices that help them to reflect on their programs of care are actually protected, to some extent, against the onslaught of what a lot of them are feeling," said Daniel Sulmasy, MD, PhD, Kilbride-Clinton Professor of Medicine and Ethics in the Department of Medicine and Divinity School and co-director of the Program on Medicine and Religion.

The Program on Medicine and Religion was started last year with a $2.5 million grant from the Templeton Foundation to examine a variety of issues relating to how a doctor's spirituality impacts their work, how it may affect medical decision-making, and the general role of spirituality in medical practice and education. 

The Faculty Scholars Program is designed to create a growing collection of professionals who will expand scholarship and education of the spiritual and religious dimensions of medicine.

"Is there meaning in healing beyond the outcome and the income?" said Sulmasy, pondering whether there is something transcendental about the doctor-patient relationship that can help physicians find meaning in their work and better deal with the many contradictions in practicing medicine.

"Medicine is inherently paradoxical: a finite craft addressing an infinite need; a universal science dealing with individuals one at a time; and an objective practice addressing subjective experiences. Religions are good at helping us deal with paradoxes," he said.

The following are the faculty scholars for 2013-15:

Amy Michelle DeBaets, PhD, ThM, MDiv, MA, is an assistant professor of bioethics at Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and is the first osteopath in the program.

Curlin said "DeBaets' project focuses on the rich history of attention to spirituality within schools of osteopathic medicine, which train a growing proportion of tomorrow's primary care physicians."

The hope is that by understanding the roots of the profession, such spiritually can be retrieved and used to help enhance and inform the education of future osteopaths.

"I look forward to contributing to a broader understanding of the place of spirituality in medicine, particularly through studying the history of osteopathic medicine and the unique perspective that tradition provides to the field," DeBaets said.
 
Warren Kinghorn, MD, ThD, is assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology at Duke University Medical Center and Duke Divinity School.

"Dr. Kinghorn's project rather adventurously puts Thomas Aquinas into conversation with contemporary psychology in order to better understand the practical challenges faced by physicians, patients, and religious communities as they respond to mental health concerns," Curlin said.

Kinghorn is seeking to develop a theologically structured program of study that can help clergy administer to the physicians in their congregations.

"The program is for me an unprecedented opportunity to develop more deeply as a theological scholar within medicine, and also to allow my training and identity as a psychiatrist to more deeply inform my theological work," Kinghorn said.

Elena Salmoirago-Blotcher, PhD, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

"Dr. Salmoirago-Blotcher will focus on physicians who are at high risk for burnout, to examine how their religious faith and spiritual practices might help to sustain a sense of meaning and purpose in one's work," Curlin said.

Lydia Dugdale, MD, is an assistant professor in the section of general internal medicine at the Yale School of Medicine.

She will focus on the inherent difficulties in end-of-life care and examine a range of theological virtues physicians use in treating terminal patients.

"I aim to produce a foundation of published work that draws on theology and philosophy, and to further scholarly conversations about the care of the dying in a manner that supports physicians and patients," Dugdale said.

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