Postgrad certificate offered in spirituality, health care

Course brings spirituality into the medical academic

Spirituality has been tied to physical health throughout the history of cultures worldwide, but only recently has it been gaining new attention as a component of modern health care. Now, George Washington University's Institute for Spirituality and Health (GWISH) has brought the subject fully into the academic setting by offering a graduate certificate in spirituality and health care.

"Spirituality is a factor that contributes to health. It can be understood as an essential part of each human being — that part which seeks meaning and purpose in the midst of suffering, illness, stress, and life transitions," explains GWISH Director Christina Puchalski, MD. "Spiritual beliefs and issues can impact patients' illness and health care decision making, as well as influence diagnosis, treatment, and coping."

The certificate program that was launched during the spring 2007 semester is believed to be the first of its kind in an academic setting, according to the program's director, Beverly Lunsford, PhD, RN, associate director of the Washington, DC-based GWISH. The 15-semester-hour certificate program is offered on-line and targets health care providers who are already in — or on their way to — their careers.

Bringing spirituality into existing programs

Lunsford says she frequently received inquiries from medical or nursing students asking, "What kind of job will I be able to get when I finish this program?" But the program is geared not toward job seekers as much as it is to professionals already in jobs where they have identified ways that incorporating spiritual awareness can improve delivery of care.

"What we've found is that people who are in health care professions — be it end-of-life [care], nursing, or another profession — come into the program and see roles that are needed where they already are [working]," she says. Designing the program to be offered on-line rather than in the classroom allows applicants already in full-time careers to find real-life applications as they learn, she adds.

Applicants to the program must be practicing health care professionals (physicians, psychologists, nurses, social workers, chaplains, etc.) with a bachelor's degree and GPA of 3.0 or higher in a related field. The first cohort of students who began in January 2007 are primarily physicians, followed by chaplains, nurses, and social workers.

The potential for impact on the delivery of health care is twofold, Lunsford says. On one level, individual candidates will develop their own skills at integrating patient spirituality and health, and on another level, they'll be able act as leaders to bring about changes in approach at their clinical and academic institutions.

It's spirituality, not religion

An important point Lunsford makes about the GWISH program is that it is evidence-based, not rooted in religious belief.

"We view spirituality as universal to all people, and not just to people who practice a religion," she explains. "We say we look at our patients as bio-psycho-social-spiritual, but the spiritual component is not developed very fully because it's been couched as 'religious.' But spirituality is broader than religion, and [through the GWISH program], we're developing some theoretical framework for that."

The need for incorporating patients' spirituality into their health care is evidenced in a growing body of literature, Lunsford adds. More than 80% of U.S. medical schools have courses in spirituality, and many hospitals have spirituality initiatives, according to Puchalski.

Patient-centered care "must include knowing people's spiritual framework, because that determines whether they accept care, whether we make our care appropriate to their own health beliefs and practices — it truly affects the delivery of care," Lunsford says. Among the primary aims of the GWISH instruction is to enable certificate candidates to facilitate spiritual care in particular when patients and families face serious illness, chronic pain, end of life, and bereavement.

The provider's own spirituality is not ignored; in fact, one component of the program addresses how health care professionals' personal spirituality is a factor that contributes to their own professional purpose and their delivery of care.

(For information on the GWISH Spirituality and Health Care Graduate Certificate Program and how to apply, go to


  • Beverly Lunsford, PhD, RN, program director, Spirituality and Health Care Graduate Certificate Program; Associate Director, George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. Address: GWUMC Health Care Sciences, 2300 Eye Street NW, Washington, DC 20037. Phone: (202) 994-6223. E-mail: