Medical Students Embrace Spirituality During Seminar

Published January 6, 2020

story based on news release by barbara branning

Third-year medical students took part in a seminar designed to enhance their awareness and understanding of different types of spirituality.


The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences once again partnered with the Network of Religious Communities to host the 14th annual edition of the event.

The Network of Religious Communities facilitates proactive collaboration among Buffalo and Western New York religious communities: denominations, congregations and religious organizations. Its executive director, the Rev. Dr. G. Stanford Bratton, works with Jacobs School leaders to organize the seminar each year.

The seminar was part of a two-week, required intersession course directed by Daniel W. Sheehan, MD, PhD, associate dean for medical curriculum.

Spirituality Affects Well-Being Across Life Span

The link between spiritual and physical or mental health is as old as medicine itself. Not only can spirituality be an element in the way patients face chronic illness, it can affect well-being across the life span.

At the seminar, students had the opportunity to talk to Buffalo-area faith leaders and representatives from a variety of religious and spiritual traditions.

Despite increased use of technology in health care, medical schools in the past decade have begun to focus on the patient from a more holistic point of view that takes into account all aspects of his or her existence.

“Medical research has demonstrated that faith and religious practices often have positive effects on one’s health and well-being,” says David M. Holmes, MD, director of the Global Medicine Program in the Department of Family Medicine.

Recognizing Potential Religious Biases

Spirituality can affect longevity, mental health and life satisfaction, medical decision-making and chronic pain. It can also improve the doctor-patient relationship.

The seminar focused on teaching students to be able to:

  • recognize potential religious and spiritual biases in themselves, in others, and in the health care delivery process
  • elicit a spiritual history
  • discuss basic beliefs of at least three different faiths and how they affect the health and well-being of individuals who share those faiths
  • discuss the importance of eliciting individual beliefs and practices within a faith
  • describe the roles of hospital chaplains and when to refer to them and why

Awareness Can Reduce Health Care Disparities

According to a 2015 report from the National Institutes of Health, awareness and attention to a patient’s cultural identity — including language and religion — can and should be addressed at every stage of life.

The report states that awareness can reduce disparities in health care and enhance clinical care, as it “enables providers to deliver services that are respectful of and responsive to the health beliefs, practices and cultural and linguistic needs of diverse patients.”

Community leaders from the following faiths participated:

  • Ahmadiyya Muslim Community
  • Bahá’í 
  • Buddhism
  • Church of Christ, Scientist
  • Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
  • Hinduism
  • Islam
  • Jehovah’s Witnesses
  • Judaism
  • Native American community
  • Pentecostal (African American) and Protestant Christian
  • Religious Humanism
  • Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox 
  • Sikhism

The two-day seminar was conducted Dec. 17 and 18 in the Sol Messinger, MD ’57 Active Learning Center on the first floor of the Jacobs School building. Half the class attended the first day and the other half attended the second day.