Forty-seven percent of Americans describe themselves as religious, 33% say they are spiritual, and 2% identify as both, according to a 2023 Gallup poll. 

Spirituality is commonly seen as a “dynamic and intrinsic aspect of humanity through which persons seek ultimate meaning, purpose, and transcendence, and experience relationship to self, family, others, community, society, nature, and the significant or sacred.” 

Religion is seen as “the search for significance within the context of established institutions oriented to facilitating spirituality.” 

The role of religion or spirituality varies in importance based on the person, but research indicates that it’s an influential piece of some peoples’ lives. Given its importance, should it be considered a driver of health (or social determinant of health)? Should medical professionals learn about it in school and focus on it while caring for their patients? 

Two articles I read on the matter made compelling arguments that this should be the case. 

Before I discuss what theory would say about the issue, let’s take a step back and consider the drivers of health and the current state of FaithHealth (what some scholars are calling the intersection of spirituality and health).

FaithHealth is a Driver of Health

Drivers of Health (DOH) are defined as “all the circumstances in a person’s life that affect their health and quality of life status. These include access to quality health care, plus predominantly non-medical factors, such as education access and quality, access to and affordability of healthy foods, social connections and support, stable employment and housing, safe neighborhoods, clean air and water, and more.” 

When you look at some of the examples listed in the definition, adding spirituality or religion seems logical. However, prevailing education models don’t seem to support that. A 2018 study found that 53% of public health graduate students reported insufficient education on spiritual factors in health. Another survey found that only 7% of medical schools make coursework regarding religion, spirituality, and health a requirement. However, 90% reported providing optional courses or content.

Fortunately, the status quo seems to be changing. Last month, the American Medical Association (AMA) considered a resolution on this topic at their annual House of Delegates meeting. According to the Reference Committee notes, the Committee recommended adopting the AMA’s recognition of “the importance of individual patient spirituality and its impact on health and encourages patient access to spiritual care services.” It also states that the AMA “encourages the availability of education about spiritual health, defined as meaning, purpose, and connectedness, in curricula in medical school, graduate medical education, and continuing physician professional development as an integral part of whole person care.” Perhaps the AMA’s updated stance will help support an emphasis on spirituality in health care education, and thus, its provision.

Research may also support this shift. Researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital conducted a study looking at the role of spirituality in serious illness and associated health outcomes. They shared the following key findings:

  1. Spirituality is important to, and spiritual care is desired by, patients that have serious illnesses;
  2. The spiritual needs of patients that have serious illnesses are often unaddressed within health care contexts;
  3. For patients with serious illnesses, better outcomes were associated with those who were provided spiritual care; 
  4. For patients with serious illnesses, poorer quality of life was associated with those whose spiritual needs weren’t addressed.

Given this information, what should the medical field do? Theory has an answer.

An interdependent approach to health

Modularity Theory (also known as the Theory of Interdependence and Modularity) states that when performance isn’t good enough and a system’s components are unpredictably interdependent—that is, the way one part is designed and functions depends on the way another part is designed and functions and vice versa—then the only way forward is for an organization to wrap its hands around the entire problem. One entity must address every critical component in the system so that it will function adequately. 

Then, once performance is good enough, the process can become standardized. This standardization creates a state where modularity can thrive, enabling many entities to compete to deliver one or more parts of a service more cheaply and quickly.

Since health is interdependent and spiritual health is an essential portion of health (for some), but patients’ spiritual needs are not being adequately addressed within the medical care setting, theory would indicate that one entity needs to wrap its arms around the issue. 

I suggest that medical schools wrap their arms around the issue of FaithHealth. They can do so by offering mandatory courses on FaithHealth, and partnering with different faith organizations to support its understanding. Such a change in curriculum and training would ensure that all new providers entering the field will have some training in a key influencer on health. 

This foundation will ultimately enable FaithHealth to become a component of the standard of care, ultimately improving health for those the system serves. 


  • Emmanuelle Verdieu
    Emmanuelle Verdieu

    My research looks into the role of business model innovation in child well-being, including how to transform the child welfare system into a child well-being system. Also, I’m interested in research regarding disruption in health care; specifically, evaluating pathways to improve it using the theories created and co-created by Clayton Christensen.