Puchalski advocates spiritual assessment in patient treatment


Before going to medical school, Christina Puchalski worked at the National Institutes of Health, a medical research agency that typically treats patients who did not respond to conventional treatments. She began to realize that spirituality is important for coping with physical distress; despite their illnesses, many NIH patients had a real sense of purpose because of their faith.

When Puchalski lost a family member in her youth, she found exploring her spirituality and participating in support groups to be beneficial to her own healing.

“I recognized, from a personal point of view, that I thought this might be something that people in general would need,” she said, “that just having someone in the health care environment deal with the physical aspects of your life doesn’t begin to even address everything that happens in your life.”

Helping people find meaning in their lives through spirituality in medicine has now become her passion. Puchalski, founder and director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality & Health and a professor at George Washington University, will speak at today’s 2 p.m. Interfaith Lecture in the Hall of Philosophy.

A person’s health has many dimensions, she said, including needs of the body, mind and soul. Recognizing a person’s spiritual health is of the utmost importance for understanding the patient as a whole.

Puchalski has pushed to implement a focus on spirituality into medical schools and hospitals. She helped author the first textbook on the matter, Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare, published in 2012.

One way nurses and physicians can bring spirituality into their work is through a spiritual assessment tool she has developed called FICA. It outlines several questions for patients about their relationships, how they care for themselves and what is important to them.

“Actively asking about something like that signals to the patient that we really care about who they are in their very deepest center,” Puchalski said, “that we’re interested in them as people, not just diseases.”

Medical care providers can also diagnose people with spiritual distress, as opposed to just physical distress. Sometimes a patient is grieving, may feel abandoned by God or believe that his or her illness is some kind of punishment, she said. In that case, a doctor could recommend meeting with a chaplain.

When looking at the future of health care reform, Puchalski will continue the push to include spirituality in the practice of medicine. Caregiving is really about providing a service, she said, and future caregivers need to be well equipped.

“Our work is really sacred,” Puchalski said, “and our health system needs to reflect that.”