Mind-Body Links Uncovered by Templeton

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1991

After noticing that the mental and physical health of many of his patients was deeply entwined with their spiritual state of mind, a Duke-trained M.D. named David Larson founded the National Institute for Healthcare Research in 1991 to systematically study how religious views and practice affect health. Throughout the next decade until Larson’s sudden death in 2002, the John Templeton Foundation invested nearly $10 million in research and publication grants to allow NIHR to explore this uncharted territory.

In addition, the Templeton Foundation provided Duke University with a $9.8 million eight-year grant which created the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at the Duke University Medical Center in 1998. The mission of CSTH was to “conduct research on the relationships between religion, spirituality, and health, to train others to do so, to interpret the research…and design future research.” The center recruited a team of faculty from medicine, psychiatry, nursing, sociology, and other fields, and commenced an ambitious schedule of investigation and publishing. By 2012, the center had produced more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific articles on “relationships between religious involvement and a host of psychological and physical health outcomes.” By that same time, ten other centers on health and spirituality had also taken root in the U.S., at places like the George Washington University Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the Texas Medical Center, and four more had been founded in Canada and Europe.

Both medical education and medical practice have been affected by this new knowledge. As late as 2000, for instance, 92 percent of professional psychiatrists reported that while they encounter significant religious and spiritual issues in their practices, two thirds of them had had no serious training or research background in religious or spiritual issues. The number of medical schools offering courses on patient religious life could be counted on one hand when Templeton entered this field in the early ’90s. By 2010, however, three quarters of U.S. medical schools had brought spirituality into their curricula, spurred not only by clearly demonstrated correlations between religious life and health but also by Templeton awards for medical schools and residency programs that innovated in this area. There is also now a David Larson Fellowship in Health and Spirituality, which is awarded to post-doctoral scholars annually by the Library of Congress.

“The amount of studies done since the year 2000” on spirituality and health “probably exceeds all the research in the 150 years prior to 2000,” says Harold Koenig, associate professor of medicine and director of the Duke center. Christina Puchalski, director of George Washington University’s Institute for Spirituality and Health, observes that including faith factors in medical treatment is part of a larger shift in medicine away from just thinking about disease, and taking account of wellness and “the inner life of the patient.”