Some shots were fired this week by former New Zealander of the Year Dr Lance O'Sullivan regarding the state of the nation's healthcare.

He didn't mince his words: he said it was f**ed. He said it's not serving patients, that nurses are by and large good but many doctors are incompetent. He said the health system is broken.

But a ray of light I spotted recently was some research out of Otago University on the shift in mindset around how the medical profession provides care. There's a push towards incorporating spiritual care into medical treatment - a more holistic approach, particularly for our very ill patients.

Spiritual care is perhaps done best in Maori and Pacific cultures, especially when it comes to palliative care, but is there enough room in mainstream healthcare outside of these cultures to support the sick?


The new research from Otago University cited the importance of spiritual care in cancer treatment for example.

And by spiritual care, I mean beyond visits from well-meaning Christian ministers, but encompassing all spiritual practices.

International evidence states that recording patients' spiritual beliefs can make a difference to their care, not just in terms of patient happiness but also physical outcomes.

These days 86 per cent of New Zealanders don't go to a church yet arguably have spiritual needs when faced when a terminal illness.

The researchers call it "spiritual distress" which apparently between 40 to 60 per cent of people experience at this time.

You only have to be bedside with any relative at a hospital to know that the whole experience can be very distressing.

There are good and bad bedside manners, there are thoughtful and not so thoughtful doctors. Trying to train staff to recognise spiritual distress, or any kind of distress actually, would be a good start.

Healthcare should be holistic, not just relegated to charts, monitors and drips.
The more humanity we can put into healthcare the better.


We shouldn't underestimate the power of mental health and wellbeing, the psychological effects of illness on people.

The Otago University report recommended early training around spiritual care among health professionals and introducing this aspect of training into medical schools around the country.

I'm sure many medical practitioners could argue they shouldn't have to take this on, that they're too busy trying to fix people to worry about their spiritual or emotional needs.

But I don't think asking to factor those things in is asking too much at all.