THURSDAY, Sept. 11, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- Although you might expect the eye doctor's office to be the last place you would have a discussion about spirituality, recent research suggests that most people would appreciate such a conversation.
Almost half of those included in the study attended weekly religious services,, and 82 percent felt that prayer was very important to their sense of well-being, according to the study, which was published in the September issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology.
"Patients were interested in having their physicians ask them about their religion and spirituality. They seemed to crave a personal relationship," said study author Gina Magyar-Russell, an instructor and clinical psychologist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore.
However, Magyar-Russell said there are two caveats to the study -- one is that it may hold true only for Christians, and the other is that it may hold true only for those with serious eye disease, because the people included in this study were predominantly Christian and most were losing or had poor vision in one or both eyes.
"Spirituality can affect the physical and emotional health of patients in quite significant ways," said Dr. Harold G. Koenig, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center.
"If they don't know about their patients' spirituality, then they're practicing medicine without all of the information they need, because [spirituality] can influence the patient's prognosis and compliance," explained Koenig, who is also co-director of Duke's Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.
The study included 124 consecutive eye clinic patients who completed a questionnaire that included questions about their spirituality. Sixty percent were being seen for vision problems related to diabetes, 15 percent for vein blockages, and the rest were being seen for other eye problems, such as macular degeneration.
Sixty percent were moderately or very worried about their eye problem, and one-third had poor vision in at least one eye.
Seventy-seven percent identified themselves as Christian, while 6 percent were Jewish. Three percent said they were agnostic. Forty-five percent attended weekly religious services, according to the study.
Few -- just 2.4 percent -- believed that God caused their illness. Almost 70 percent felt that God gave them strength to help them be "at peace" with their declining vision.
So, when doctors are actually trained to ask questions about spirituality, what can they do with this information? Magyar-Russell said that if their patients are using religion in a positive way, such as turning to God for support, then doctors can just listen and be supportive. But, if they hear that their patients feel that God is punishing them somehow or they feel abandoned by God, then the physician could refer them to a hospital chaplain or ask them if they have a pastor or priest that they could talk to about these feelings.
"When people are having religious struggles, they die more quickly and are in worse physical health," said Koenig. "When people use religion to help them cope in a positive way, it reduces stress and can affect health in a positive way.
Both Koenig and Magyar-Russell said more physicians need to be trained in giving a proper spiritual evaluation.
"Less than 10 percent of doctors do this in an regular way, even with dying patients, and that's because most haven't been trained," Koenig said.
To learn more about how spirituality might affect your health and why it's important for your doctor to know your feelings, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians' FamilyDoctor Web site.