How should teaching on whole person medicine, including spiritual issues, be delivered in the undergraduate medical curriculum in the United Kingdom?

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Although the General Medical Council recommends that United Kingdom medical students are taught ‘whole person medicine’, spiritual care is variably recognised within the curriculum. Data on teaching delivery and attainment of learning outcomes is lacking. This study ascertained views of Faculty and students about spiritual care and how to teach and assess competence in delivering such care.


A questionnaire comprising 28 questions exploring attitudes to whole person medicine, spirituality and illness, and training of healthcare staff in providing spiritual care was designed using a five-point Likert scale. Free text comments were studied by thematic analysis. The questionnaire was distributed to 1300 students and 106 Faculty at Queen’s University Belfast Medical School.


351 responses (54 staff, 287 students; 25 %) were obtained. >90 % agreed that whole person medicine included physical, psychological and social components; 60 % supported inclusion of a spiritual component within the definition. Most supported availability of spiritual interventions for patients, including access to chaplains (71 %), counsellors (62 %), or members of the patient’s faith community (59 %). 90 % felt that personal faith/spirituality was important to some patients and 60 % agreed that this influenced health. However 80 % felt that doctors should never/rarely share their own spiritual beliefs with patients and 67 % felt they should only do so when specifically invited. Most supported including training on provision of spiritual care within the curriculum; 40-50 % felt this should be optional and 40 % mandatory. Small group teaching was the favoured delivery method. 64 % felt that teaching should not be assessed, but among assessment methods, reflective portfolios were most favoured (30 %). Students tended to hold more polarised viewpoints but generally were more favourably disposed towards spiritual care than Faculty. Respecting patients’ values and beliefs and the need for guidance in provision of spiritual care were identified in the free-text comments.


Students and Faculty generally recognise a spiritual dimension to health and support provision of spiritual care to appropriate patients. There is lack of consensus whether this should be delivered by doctors or left to others. Spiritual issues impacting patient management should be included in the curriculum; agreement is lacking about how to deliver and assess.

Original languageEnglish
Article number96
Number of pages13
JournalBMC Medical Education
Publication statusPublished - 02 Jun 2015

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