By Dr. Anthony Policastro

As a member of the Knights of Columbus, I often have to attend funerals of members. Sometimes I have to call the widows and speak to them. That means I have both a religious and medical role in doing those things.

Many people do not realize how intertwined religion and medicine are. Over the last 20 years there have been a number of medical studies looking at that relationship. In general they have found that religious beliefs can have a positive effect on medical issues.

Quality of life is one area where those effects are seen. A 1999 study of cancer patients found that those with stronger religious belief had a better quality of life. They had better pain scores than non-religious individuals.

More recent studies have found the two most important elements to quality of life at the end of life. They are “freedom from pain” and “being at peace with God.”

On the other hand individuals who are less religious are more likely to have symptoms like depression, anxiety and anorexia.

Patients whose medical care teams had a high support level of their spiritual needs reported a higher quality of life near death.

The key here is for the medical caregivers to be aware of the importance of paying attention to the patient’s religious beliefs.

A study in Chicago and one at Duke University found that patients, whose physicians did not pay attention to religious needs, had less satisfaction with their overall care.

Religious beliefs also have an effect on care decisions. Some individuals delay care for serious illness related to their beliefs. Others desire aggressive treatment to extend life based upon their religious beliefs.

Another area that is affected by religious belief is related to hospice care at the end of life. Those patients who had good support of their spirituality by the medical care team were more likely to transition to hospice. They were less likely to require aggressive care during the last week of life. That made their medical care costs significantly lower during that final week as well.

The main takeaway from all of this is that religion plays an important role in providing medical care. It is important that the medical care team realize this and support it. That is especially true for end of life care.