11/24/2014 07:15 pm ET Updated Jan 24, 2015

Incorporating Religion and Spirituality Into Healthcare

Religion and spirituality are an important, if often private, part of many Americans' lives. According to a poll from Pew Research Center, 65 percent of Americans identify themselves as religious and 18 percent describe themselves as spiritual. Yet, there is one place where those beliefs haven't always been completely welcome: medicine. This is actually ironic because during a medical crisis many people feel a need to connect to this part of their lives. Yet it can be difficult to find a doctor who shares concern for the role personal religious or spiritual beliefs can play in healthcare.

Part of the disconnect that exists between doctors and patients in these matters can be attributed to a traditional false dichotomy between faith and science. Many of the current generation of physicians and nurses have been trained to think of religion and science as opposites of one another. On top of that, medical education does not typically focus on religion or spirituality and its role in healthcare. This is a stark difference from historical times when the religious leader and/or priest and the physician healer were one and the same. The advent of science in our society pushed a separation of faith and science. Yet it doesn't have to be that way. It is possible to reconcile your religious or spiritual beliefs with your medical care -- and studies have shown that it can actually have a positive effect on your health.

Here's how to make your religious or spiritual beliefs part of your medical care:

Know your rights. As with any aspect of your medical care, you have the power to set the course as far as how religion or spirituality plays a role in your experience in the hospital or in general medical treatment. Don't be afraid to speak up and let a doctor or nurse know about how you'd like your religious or spiritual beliefs to be incorporated into your care and medical experience.

Start the discussion early. Many people wait for an extended hospital stay to make their physician aware of their religious or spiritual beliefs. Consider divulging this part of your life to your doctor from the beginning of your relationship if it is truly important to you. Doctors can do many things, but they can't read your mind.

Make it part of the end-of-life conversation. Religious and spiritual issues tend to crop up most around end-of-life issues, such as when there's a decision about whether to take someone off life support or stop other treatment for diseases that are incurable. Because your personal beliefs may affect your feelings and judgment in these matters, it's good for your doctor to know where you stand before such issues arise.

Know it's OK to pray. Of course many of us pray with family or friends in times of medical crisis, but you can also incorporate your doctor or nurse into this practice. There's nothing to prevent a health care provider from praying with you if he or she is comfortable with the idea. At the same time, it can be an uncomfortable situation in some contexts. It's usually best if your doctor shares your same religious beliefs, but that can be overcome if the prayer is non-denominational. As long as the patient initiates the discussion and the health care professional knows that it is OK to decline the invitation, then it is perfectly ethical and can be a bonding moment, especially during a tough time.

Ask for the experts. Though your doctor should certainly be clued into your desire for religious or spiritual experience in your healthcare, he or she should not be the main source of support. If you're in the hospital, turn to a staff chaplain who can guide you through whatever issues you're facing in a manner that makes you feel most comfortable. Many hospitals staff religious personnel across many different beliefs, including spirituality rather than religion. Hospital chaplains are trained in a comprehensive and rigorous program and are true experts. Clergy from the community may be available on a case-by-case basis as well.

A major healthcare episode can be a challenging and stressful time in a person's life. And because so many people turn to religion or spirituality for comfort and healing during these times, it makes sense that those parts of a person's life should be incorporated in their care. Voicing any beliefs that are part of your daily life in an upfront and honest matter will bring your health caregivers closer into your life -- and ultimately give you a better healthcare experience.