HealthDay News — Intensive care clinicians rarely talk to patients or their families about religion or spirituality, which is important to many people nearing the end of life, according to a study published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Douglas White, MD, an associate professor of critical care medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, and colleagues found that 77.6% of people acting on behalf of patients in intensive care said that religion or spirituality was fairly or very important to them. Yet their beliefs came up in only 40 out of 249 family conferences with medical professionals. In 26 of those 40 cases, the patient’s family member brought up the subject first. White’s team established their findings by recording these meetings, with permission from everyone involved, and analyzing the conversations.

The team found that medical staff tended to respond to expressions of spiritual need by: redirecting the conversation to medical considerations (n = 15), offering to involve hospital spiritual care providers or the patient’s own religious or spiritual community (n = 14), expressing empathy (n = 13), acknowledging surrogates’ statements (n = 11), or explaining their own religious or spiritual beliefs (n = 3).

“The findings regarding the silence surrounding religion and/or spirituality in intensive care unit conversations are loud and clear,” Tracy Balboni, MD, MPH, associate professor at Harvard Medical School in Boston, and colleagues write in an editorial accompanying the study. “The question remains whether we who care for dying persons and their families will learn how to be present and listen.”


  1. Ernecoff NC et al. JAMA Intern Med. 2015; doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2015.4124.