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Gowri Anandarajah (’88): On Doctoring and Spirituality

“When people think of spirituality in medicine, the first thing that comes to mind is attending to the patient’s needs,” says Gowri Anandarajah, professor of family medicine at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School and a 1988 graduate of Dartmouth's medical school. That’s a good thing, she agrees. But Anandarajah has come to believe that spirituality—which she defines broadly as a common human experience relating to meaning, purpose, values, and beliefs—is important in physicians’ lives, too. And for many, doctoring is itself a spiritual practice.

As a resident at Duke University Medical Center in the late 1980s, Anandarajah found that her patients frequently talked about God and religion. Despite being a person of faith (Hindu), she didn’t know how to respond to their comments; and her fellow physicians didn’t seem to either. So she began to study spirituality in medicine.

Over the years, Anandarajah developed curricula for medical students and residents to help them communicate with patients about spirituality, especially in cross-cultural contexts, and published multiple frameworks to guide physicians in providing whole-person care—care that recognizes the mind, body, and spirit as important to health.

It’s no longer unusual for medical students and residents to learn about spirituality as it relates to their patients’ health, says Anandarajah. But it is still unusual for medical students, residents, and practicing physicians to talk about their own spiritual health.

“There is another hugely important aspect that has to do with why is a doctor a doctor,” says Anandarajah, who is director of faculty development and co-director of the global health fellowship in Brown’s Family Medicine Department. She is also associate medical director at Home and Hospice Care of Rhode Island. Medical students are so idealistic and service oriented when they enter medical school, she observes. “My question is how do you keep that passion, that spiritual fire alive in people as they go through their career?”

Anandarajah and a colleague recently concluded a small qualitative study of physicians’ views on compassionate patient care and spirituality, to be published in the Rhode Island Medical Journal. She was surprised to discover that most of the physicians linked compassion to underlying spiritual values, secular or religious.

“Taking care of patients in a compassionate way, and finding it within themselves to do that, was in and of itself a spiritual practice for them,” says Anandarajah, who is eager to explore this finding in future studies.

In her own career, Ananandarajah has found her fulfilment in caring for the medically underserved—whether in Rhode Island, Central America, or India—and in teaching medical students and residents. “I do this work because I believe it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “It’s part of my own spiritual belief system.”