- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 16, 2006

Religion and spirituality may be the cure for depressed young doctors at the mercy of long hours and trying schedules, according to research funded by the National Institutes of Health and released yesterday by the University of Cincinnati.

Hospital residents — physicians in training who must put book learning to practical use — can fall prey to emotional exhaustion, despair and burnout, according to the study, which gauged the mental and spiritual well-being of 227 residents — all younger than 30 — in two Cincinnati hospitals.

A quarter reported that they were “significantly depressed,” a finding that the researchers deemed “disturbingly high.” Research in the past two decades revealed that the number of depressed hospital residents was typically about 18 percent. In addition, the arduous work schedule for residents supposedly had changed for the better recently.

“We might have expected that number to fall after the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education implemented work-hour restrictions in 2003,” principal investigator Dr. Michael Yi said.

The number actually had increased, prompting the research team to look for possible alternative panaceas. They turned to religion.

“Because the psychological well-being of physicians in training may impact patient care, addressing the spiritual needs of residents at greater risk for mood problems may help them cope with the stresses associated with their training,” Dr. Yi said.

Spirituality and religion can counter stress and illness by steering residents toward “salutary health-related behaviors, involvement in social networks and establishment of a sense of coherence or meaning to life,” according to the study.

It also found that residents struggling with religious values — questioning their faith or feeling abandoned — “were more likely to have significant depressive symptoms.”

The researchers suggested “interventions” to minimize such negative experiences, plus structured programs “to improve spiritual well-being” tailored to individual religious traditions.

The role of religion in medicine has been discussed frequently in the past five years. The Mayo Clinic, Saint Louis University, Brown University and other institutions have reported that prayer and spiritual guidance play a significant role in treating physical and mental illness.

The American Academy of Family Physicians and other groups now encourage doctors to take a spiritual assessment of their patients; 50 U.S. medical schools offer courses on the role of religion and spirituality in health and medicine.

“Engaging the spiritual dimension of health and health care can also help physicians and physicians-to-be maintain balance, better understand their calling and capabilities, and better appreciate their limits and life’s work,” according to the University of Virginia School of Medicine curriculum description. The school has offered spiritual training for its medical students since 1998.

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