At the Intersection of Technology and Spirituality

The pursuit of innovative digital tools is hollow if it ignores the core values that drive good patient care.

By John Halamka, M.D., president, Mayo Clinic Platform, and Paul Cerrato, senior research analyst and communications specialist, Mayo Clinic Platform

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their battle." When Ian Maclaren, the 19th century British minister, coined that phrase, he never imagined the battles we face today or the stresses they create. But as we emerge from the pandemic and started to increase interactions with the outside world, we can agree it is a message for our time. If we recognize that everyone around us has their own battles and we consider their behaviors in that context, it is much easier to feel empathy and apply the other spiritual values that are at the core of good patient care.

If you ask clinicians about the value of applying spirituality in health care, most would likely agree that it already is a part of the vocation as well as the doctor/patient relationship. But acknowledging the benefits that spirituality can play in health care and actually practicing it are two different things.

There are numerous reasons why some clinicians do not embrace spirituality in daily practice. Some may consider the spiritual aspects of healing to be unscientific or lacking in objective medical evidence.

A Harvard University physician/theologian team touched on this disconnect: “The assumption that medicine and spirituality should remain separate remains largely unquestioned throughout medicine, especially academic medical schools and teaching hospitals.” The key beliefs in this construct include the following:
“Hospitals are primarily institutions of technology and cure rather than organizations aimed toward humanistic care.

  • Physicians conceptualize themselves primarily as scientists, and secondarily as health managers, rather than primarily as healers attentive to the whole person.
  • The human person is divisible according to material and immaterial; on an anthropological level, there is no direct connection between body and soul. Physical health and disease are not directly related to spiritual factors.
  • Engagement of fear, finitude, and death are subjective domains, and better dealt with by others, including clergy and religious communities.
  • Contemporary medicine is driven by bureaucratic concerns and secular factors including the market, science, and technology. Spirituality and religion cannot fit within this system.”

However, given the value that many patients give to spirituality, it is not surprising to find that patients whose spiritual needs are not addressed by health care professionals are often unsatisfied with the medical care they receive. One study has found “patients reporting greater spiritual needs had lower ratings of satisfaction with care and lower perceptions of the quality of care.”

With these concerns in mind, how does one recognize a spiritual-minded health care professional? By their ability to manifest mercy, compassion, the capacity for forgiveness, gratitude, humility, empathy, acceptance of others, open-mindedness, patience, self-discipline, kindness, faith, and intimacy. In today’s polarized, political and social environment, our patients and our fellow health care providers are more in need of spiritual care than ever.

One of the advantages of developing this spiritually mature philosophy is that it not only benefits patients and fellow clinicians, it feeds one’s own need to lead a meaningful, purpose-filled life. Greeting each day with enthusiasm for the possibilities, with boundless, energetic optimism and empathy instills a sense of well-being. It likewise fulfills one of our higher psychological needs, according to well-known psychologist Abraham Maslow’s motivation model. That model described a pyramid of needs that we gradually work through as we mature. At the base of that pyramid are basic physiological needs for water, air, shelter, sleep, clothing and reproduction. If these needs are satisfied, a person can start giving more attention to the need for safety, which includes personal security, employment, property, and so on. We begin to concentrate on the next level, belonging and love, when we feel safe. And finally, we reach a point in the journey where we focus on the need for self-actualization, a higher order need Maslow explained in more detail: “Even if all these needs are satisfied, we may still often (if not always) expect that a new discontent and restlessness will soon develop, unless the individual is doing what he, individually is fitted for. A musician must make music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself. What a man [or woman] can be, he must be. This need we may called self-actualization.” In other words, it is the need to actually accomplish what one has the potential to accomplish.1

As we have stated many times in this blog series, the future belongs to digital health. But it also belongs to clinicians who can artfully blend the quest for innovative technology with the age-old need to fulfill the spiritual needs of our patients and ourselves. At Mayo Clinic, spiritual care exists to engage the spiritual dimensions of people — their beliefs, faiths, cultures, values and religious practices for healing, well-being and growth. It stems from Mayo’s patient-centric mission and is rooted in the belief that faith, values and spiritual practices are vital resources for healing and well-being.


  1. Maslow A. Motivation and Personality. Harper and Row, New York, 1954.

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