While the movement linking spirituality and health has drawn generous media coverage, philanthropic funding, and impressive research results, the health care system has yet to recognize the “faith factor” in its everyday workings.
“We have to get this stuff paid for,” said Dr. Herbert Benson, pioneer of the spirituality in medicine field, referring to the lack of health insurers covering the new approach to health. Benson was speaking at the conference on spirituality and healing he runs every December in Boston, sponsored by the Harvard Medical School and his own Mind/Body Medical Institute. The conference itself, called “Mainstreaming Spirituality: The Next Step,” showed how far the field of spirituality in medicine has progressed.
When Religion Watch covered one of Benson’s earliest conferences, the idea of prayer and faith used in medical treatment was relatively novel, mainly confined to holistic and Eastern spirituality circles.
Throughout the 1990s, Benson and his colleagues — with substantial funding from the John Templeton Foundation — sought to buttress their claims with verifiable scientific data, such as in proving the effect of meditation and prayer on the treatment of such ailments as heart disease and arthritis. The effort to introduce courses on spirituality and health in medical schools has been successful.
The annual conferences also showed a concern to expand and translate the concept of healing for mainstream religious traditions — from Pentecostalism to Islam. Speakers at this year’s conference did acknowledge a degree of acceptance in the medical establishment. In one session, Phyllis Ann Solari-Twadell reported that parish nurses — nurses working with church members on health issues — have piloted a program to expand the nursing vocabulary to include such concepts as spiritual well-being and spiritual crises in their diagnoses and interventions.
But the central theme of the conference was that until health insurance companies pay for spiritual care in their coverage, the faith factor in medicine will not gain legitimacy in the health care system. Such major health insurance companies as Cigna and Aetna have refused to provide reimbursements for treatments involving spirituality and faith, as well as unconventional “mind-body” practices.
The cost-driven nature of health insurance that favors conventional and hi-tech treatments over controversial techniques, and the fact that the industry does not communicate well enough with consumers to know of their interests in such treatments all contribute to the marginalization of spirituality in medicine, according to Tom Wojick of the Mind-Body Institute of St. Mary’s Hospital in Richmond, Va.
Benson said that his institute and others in the field are concentrating on changing the minds of the large purchasers of insurance — the companies that have the leverage to demand reimbursements for treatments when they buy coverage plans for their employees.
One of the few insurers to offer benefits for spiritual care is Sloans Lake Managed Care, a firm headed by speaker Neil Waldron. The company covers the services provided by chaplains, pastoral counselors and spiritual directors from all religious faiths. A recent company survey of those who have used Sloans Lake coverage found that females are the most likely recipients; that the cost of such coverage is very low (about $300 per year); that spiritual counseling to address specific needs is the form of spiritual care most often used (87 percent); the majority of users were satisfied with such care; and that physicians very rarely, if ever, referred patients for spiritual care.