Spiritual Care in Nursing: Guidelines and Tips

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A nurse hugging a patient.Spirituality can be a key element in patient-centered care (PCC) and its holistic approach to care delivery. This approach takes a patient’s faith and belief systems into account when providing care, allowing patients to have a greater say in their care strategy.

A growing body of evidence shows spirituality is an important component of emotional wellness for many patients, particularly for those facing serious illness or nearing the end of their lives. Oftentimes, though, health care providers who have direct contact with patients, including nurses, struggle to incorporate spirituality into individualized patient care.

However, integrating spiritual care into nursing practice can make a difference. A 2021 peer-reviewed paper published by Primary Care Reports suggests that the simple act of asking a patient about their spirituality can dramatically improve the patient/provider dynamic. As such, incorporating spiritual care isn’t just a sign of respect, it’s a way for health care professionals to adhere to PCC’s principles.

What Is Patient-Centered Care?

Patient-centered care focuses on providing patients with respectful, empathetic and supportive care as they make decisions about their health and treatment strategies. Transparency is key, and nurses must fully inform their patients about all their test results, diagnoses, treatment options and outcomes, so they can make informed decisions. This can also apply to a patient’s family members in certain cases.

Many health care facilities base their PCC strategies on the Picker Institute’s principles of person-centered care. Developed in 1987 by the nonprofit Picker Institute, the principles are designed to ensure empathy and respect toward the patient in every care scenario. The principles are:

  • Fast access to reliable care-related advice
  • Effective treatment by professionals patients trust
  • Care continuity and smooth transitions
  • Involvement of and support for careers and family members
  • Clear information, communication and support for self-care
  • Decision involvement and respect for patient preferences
  • Respect, empathy and emotional support
  • Attention to environmental and physical needs

The common thread binding these principles is patient inclusion in the care delivery process and incorporating spiritual care can be a natural part of the process.

Patient-Centered Care and Spiritual Care in Nursing

Religion and spirituality play some role in the majority of Americans’ lives. A 2022 Gallup poll found that 81% of Americans believe in God. Furthermore, in a 2021 Gallup poll, 49% of Americans said religion was “very important,” while another 27% said it was “fairly important.” Additional studies by BMC Geriatrics found that spirituality helps patients cope with stress and make crucial medical decisions, and it improves their quality of life.

In the past, spirituality has not been considered part of nursing therapeutics. However, with the focus on holistic care and respecting and responding to individual patient needs, nurses are increasingly being asked to identify and fill spiritual requests. At the forefront of the shift are advanced practice nurses who work as leaders to guide health care teams. One of the benefits of nursing certification or an advanced nursing degree is that it prepares nurses to take on these types of leadership roles.

Introducing spiritual care can be challenging for nurses, especially in palliative care. However, the Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care lists five key items nurses should bear in mind:

  • Understand that spirituality is manifested in a host of ways, and that it’s not the same as religion.
  • Screen for spiritual distress at first, then conduct a spiritual history or assessment later.
  • Know that spirituality isn’t just something to assess when the patient is admitted; nurses need to continually assess patients’ spiritual needs.
  • Appreciate that there are many ways to assess a patient’s spirituality, including those that go beyond how a patient responds to questions about either their spirituality or their religion.
  • Keep in mind that assessment can also be therapeutic.

Responding to Spiritual Requests

Inevitably, nurses will face spiritual requests they are not equipped to address. One area of concern involves prayer — specifically, instances where nurses or health care professionals are asked by patients to pray.

In these situations, it is recommended that health care professionals strike a balance between their own feelings about prayer requests with the recognition that the patient may need validation at that moment. It is also advised that they pray silently. If the patient requests that the nurse lead the prayer, the nurse should be careful not to interject their own specific beliefs.

Additionally, it is prudent for nurses to be prepared to accommodate patients with unique religious or spiritual practice needs. Nurses should always rely on the basic tenets of their profession in these situations, including empathy, communication and professionalism.

Become a Leader in Respectful, Empathetic Care

Incorporating spiritual care into nursing practice is an important step in acknowledging a patient’s unique needs. By respecting a patient’s spiritual or religious beliefs, nurses can build a rapport that can improve the patient/provider dynamic.

Duquesne University’s online post-master’s nursing certificates can help prepare you to provide this special type of care. Our program is designed to help nurses develop the expertise to assess and respond to each patient’s specific needs, including those rooted in spirituality. Learn how we can help you become a nurse leader who provides respectful care to patients of all kinds.

Recommended Reading

Helping Patients Get the Medications They Need

What Are the 6 Principles of Trauma-Informed Care?

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?


BMC Geriatrics, “Spirituality and Quality of Life in Older Adults: A Path Analysis Model”

Center to Advance Palliative Care, Addressing the Spiritual Care Needs of Patients with Serious Illness

Gallup, “Belief in God in U.S. Dips to 81%, a New Low”

Gallup, “How Religious Are Americans?”

Journal of Hospice and Palliative Care, “Initial Spiritual Screening and Assessment: Five Things to Remember”

Picker, Our History

Picker, The Picker Principles of Person Centred Care

Primary Care Reports, “Religion and Spirituality in Primary Care”

ScienceDaily, “Spirituality Linked with Better Health Outcomes, Patient Care”