An Interview with Student Poster Presenters from the 4th Annual Conference on Medicine and Religion


Written By: Rebecca Quiñones, MTS

This year’s Conference on Medicine and Religion was hosted by the Harvard Health Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality. The Conference is unique in that it brings together working professionals and students from a variety of backgrounds to engage and discuss the intersection of medicine and religion. Since its inception the Initiative has sought to mentor student researchers who are particularly interested in the intersection of medicine and religion as part of fostering the next generation of students. Three of the student researchers from the Harvard Health Initiative on Health, Religion, and Spirituality presented posters at this year’s conference, each one engaging with the intersection of medicine and religion in a unique way. Ada Amobi a MD/MPH candidate at Harvard Medical School is one such presenter. Ada first became interested in the intersection of medicine and religion when she was a first year medical student at Harvard Medical School and decided to take Dr. John Peteet’s class “Spirituality and Healing in Medicine”. Ever since then she has been a valuable part of the Initiative and we are proud to say that upon graduation Dr. Amobi will be starting her residency at MGH.  Ada presented a poster entitled “Religion, Spirituality, and the Hidden Curriculum: Medical Student and Faculty Reflections” which focused on the ways in which the religion and spirituality of medical trainees affects their interaction with what has been termed the “Hidden Curriculum” within medical training. The idea of the “Hidden Curriculum” references the way in which medical trainees become acculturated to certain ideas and values that are prevalent throughout the medical field as a whole. While not given a specific name there is a certain “culture” of medicine that medical trainees become a part of. Medical training is rigorous and while the influence of physician’s religion/spirituality on their practice has been studied, little has been done to look at how it affects their experience of medical training. When asked what some of the medical implications of this research could be Ada replied:

“Rates of depression are high among healthcare providers and medical trainees; if spiritual practice may be protective against some negative aspects of the hidden curriculum that can lead to mental health issues it may be helpful to know this so that trainees who ascribe to some kind of spiritual practice can be encouraged to view their individual practice as a form of self-care. Conversely, if spiritual practice can further compound some negative aspects of medical training it is important for trainees to be aware of this possibility”

Ada’s poster highlights the importance of recognizing the impact that religion and spirituality can have on medical trainees and its potential to either help or harm in their process of coping with the intensive process of becoming a physician. This is just one of many ways in which one’s religion and or spirituality can potentially affect one’s health. As we will see with the other poster presenters’ research, religion and spirituality influence many aspects of people’s lives often in unforeseen ways. Recognizing these subtle influences can perhaps lead to a better understanding of how people view the world and potentially have real health-related consequences.

 Audra Hite, a graduate from the University of Massachusetts is another one of the Initiative’s student researchers. Audra is currently pursuing a career as a Physician’s Assistant and has been a great asset to our research team. The poster that Audra presented at this year’s conference was entitled “Clergy End of Life Care and Race: Preliminary Findings of the National Clergy Project” which looked at the ways in which one’s race indicated the prevalence with which one chose more aggressive treatment at the end of life and the theological tenets within this racial group that could be precipitating these decisions. When asked what surprised her the most when conducting this research she replied

“The most surprising outcome from this research for me was how Blacks were more likely to die fighting for healing via various treatments instead of choosing to believe hospice care could be a more peaceful way of dying...To me Blacks took on a mentality of ‘buying God time’ to heal me through these last chemo treatments or in this next ICU visit”.

Her response highlights the impact that one’s religious and or spiritual beliefs can have on medical decision making, particularly within minority groups. One of the proposed next steps to take from these observed outcomes is to create a curriculum for clergy members that would educate them on EOL care and the medical decisions often involved in those situations. It would also highlight the ways in which certain theological beliefs could be unintentionally leading patients to receive aggressive care at the EOL. One of the questions highlighted on the poster which demonstrates the ways in which theological beliefs are potentially having a direct impact on medical decision making at the end of life reads “I accept every medical treatment because my faith tells me to do everything that I can to stay alive longer”. Black and minority clergy agreed with this statement 82% of the time as opposed to white clergy who agreed a mere 49% of the time. Clearly within the minority clergy group there is a strong theological underpinning to the determination with which patients fight to stay alive. Another question that gets at this point even more clearly reads “I would be giving up on my faith if I stopped cancer treatment”. Minority clergy agreed with this statement 21% of the time while white clergy agreed 11%. While the percentages reported from the responses to this question are not quite as prominent as the question written beforehand, it demonstrates a clearer association between a certain theological belief and the potential medical decisions that could be made as a result from upholding such beliefs. Just as in Ada’s poster a medical trainee’s religious and or spiritual beliefs could be potential positive or negative coping mechanisms with which they encounter the “Hidden Curriculum”, so too can a clergy member’s beliefs and therefore a congregant of his or hers  influence their medical decision making both positively or negatively. Rather than a neutral component of one’s make-up and wellbeing, religion and spirituality have direct implications in not only the lives of those who subscribe to their set of beliefs and values, but to those whom they serve as well.

The final poster to be explored was presented by Andrew Baccari a current student at Harvard Divinity School who is currently pursuing an MDiv. degree. Andrew hopes to go onto medical school after his divinity training truly embodying what it means to be at the intersection of medicine and religion. Andrew’s poster was entitled “Prevalence and Types of Miraculous Healings among U.S. Congregations in 2014” and explored the extent to which clergy in the United States had witnessed a miraculous healing within their own congregations. Researchers had hypothesized that miracles would be highly endorsed by clergy members but that the miraculous healings reported would not be that significant. The results however proved to be surprising. Clergy members not only highly endorsed having witnessed a miracle with 24.5% of U.S. Clergy members included in the study reporting that they had witnessed a miraculous healing within the past year, but the healings reported were quite impressive. Healings of cancer were the most prominent coming in at 49% of all miracles reported, followed by healings from pain at 22.5%. Other significant miraculous healings included those illnesses or diseases involving vital organs as well as mental disease. Clearly the belief in miracles is alive and well in this country and the types of miracles are impressive indeed. When asked what one of the more surprising outcomes of this research was Andrew said “the severity of health conditions that were reported as being resolved by the miraculous healings indicated by the clergy members...”, emphasizing the surprising results of the frequency and types of miraculous healings reported. When asked what steps he thought could be taken as a result of these findings he replied:

“I think next steps of this research may include: following up with the clergy members who had endorsed a miraculous healing to learn more about these occurrences. Another next step might be to consider the relationship between clergy members’ likelihood of endorsing a miraculous healing in relation to their understanding and preferences of advocating for aggressive treatment in their dispensing EOL advice to their congregants.”

In this poster’s research we again encounter the subtle yet influential ways in which religion and spirituality can directly affect the medical decisions patients make at the end of life. This is not to say that the belief in miracles is in itself dangerous or inherently wrong, but that closer attention needs to be made to the theological tenets and beliefs that are subtly influencing the medical decisions that patients make at the end of life.

These student presentations are a great example of what the Initiative on Health, Religion and Spirituality encourages its student researchers to do, to engage with the complicated intersection of medicine and religion in novel ways, paving the way for future generations of scholars. As we have seen from these three posters, the influences of one’s religion and spirituality are far reaching and often unseen. From the impact it can make in the lives of medical trainees during their medical education to the clergy members that are ministering to those at the end of life, one’s spiritual and religious beliefs influence all facets of life. The tension has often lied in what can be seen as the oppositional goals of medicine and religion, medicine with its emphasis on the health of the physical, and religion and or spirituality with the health of the soul. These goals need not be at odds with one another as they are inextricably linked as can be seen in these presentations. Both types of physicians, those of the body and those of the soul have as their goal the wellbeing of the patient. In order to ensure that this goal is realized it is imperative that we recognize the influence that religion and spirituality have on not only the physicians of the body, particularly during their formative years of training, but as well as with those who minister to the souls of those facing the end of life. Religion and spirituality can be strong anchors from which people are able to brace themselves against the often stormy waves of life, but they can also provide barriers to making the somewhat difficult decisions encountered by those at the end of life. While each presenter featured in this article comes from a different background they, like the attendees at the Conference on Medicine and Religion, were able to engage with this intersection in a unique and powerful way, highlighting the importance of fostering an interdisciplinary approach to the study of medicine and religion and thereby ensuring that the goals of both types of physicians are met, the health and wellbeing of body and soul. 

Ada Amobi's Poster371 KB
Audra Hite's Poster279 KB
Andrew Baccari's Poster1.26 MB