New Study Highlights Importance of Spiritual Support for Terminally Ill

Terminally ill cancer patients who receive spiritual support from their medical team are, on average, found to be in a better state of being near death than those who don't, according to a recently published study.

Additionally, among patients relying on their religious beliefs to cope with their illness, spiritual support reduced their risk of receiving aggressive medical interventions at the end of life, reported researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who conducted the study.

"Our findings suggest that spiritual care from the medical system has important ramifications for patients at the end of life, including helping them transition to comfort-focused care and improving their well-being near death," commented the study's senior author, Dr. Tracy Balboni of Dana-Farber.

"Furthermore, they highlight the need to educate medical caregivers in being attentive to the frequent role of religion and spirituality in patients' coping with advanced illness and importance of integrating pastoral care into multidisciplinary medical teams," she added.

For the study, researchers interviewed 343 incurable cancer patients at hospital and cancer centers around the country, asking about their means of coping with their illness, the degree to which their spiritual needs were met by the medical team and their preferences regarding end-of-life treatment.

Researchers then tracked each patient's course of care during the remainder of his or her life from September 2002 through August 2008.

What researchers found was that support of patients' spiritual needs by the medical team was associated with better patient well-being at the end of life, with scores on average being 28 percent higher among those receiving spiritual support.

Researchers also found that patients whose spiritual needs were largely or completely supported by the medical team were likely to transition to hospice care at the end of life.

The study, which was submitted for review in June, has been published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology on its web site and in its Dec. 14 print edition.

Financial support for the study was provided by grants from the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Mental Health, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, and the Fetzer Institute.