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Learning modules

Activity 11: Understanding spiritual needs

As a health care professional you may at times feel ill-equipped to respond to the spiritual dimension of care. Although you are not expected to have all the answers recognising the importance of spiritual care is paramount.

Spirituality is often seen as being the same as religious beliefs. For some people, spirituality comes from their religious beliefs and commitments.

However it has also been suggested that "spiritual assessment should thus not impose a view, let alone a definition, of spirituality. Instead it should seek to elicit the thoughts, memories and experiences that give coherence to a person’s life." [1]

Undertaking a spiritual assessment

Key criteria for undertaking a spiritual assessment include:

  • respect patients’ perspectives and do not infringe privacy
  • involve all members of the multidisciplinary team to the extent that they are able and willing to contribute
  • permit clear documentation of needs, strategic responses to these needs, resources required, and outcomes
  • integrate strategies into an overall care plan in ways that are readily understood by all members of the multidisciplinary team
  • provide a shared framework for continuity of care between community agencies and inpatient services
  • provide a place for religious care but do not conflate spiritual issues with religious practice. While spiritual care in general may be provided by a team, specific religious care is best provided by a person from the same faith community, preferably one willing to participate in the team.

Engaging in spiritual conversations

Giving people with life-limiting illnesses the time to reflect on the meaning and purpose of life and discuss their spiritual distress are important aspects of palliative care. Many supportive communication skills can help.

All health care professionals can be involved in spiritual conversations, but need to recognise their own limitations and refer to an accredited religious practitioner when appropriate.

Spiritual conversations may focus on and clarify questions about:

  • Identity: who am I in these changing circumstances?
  • Connectedness: who is my community, where is my place?
  • Meaning: what's the purpose of my life now?

Following these conversations spiritual care strategies may be developed for each individual. These strategies may involve:


  • Identify places where the person feels safe.
  • Ask the patient what reminds them of this place. This might be a memory, a photograph or a religious symbol.


  • Allow time for the person to share the story of their life.
  • Listen to their story and ask questions to explore and expand this experience.

Systems of belief

  • Ask the family/patient to explain their rituals and beliefs.
  • It is important as the healthcare professional to respect and support these beliefs.
  • Arrange a visit from an accredited religious practitioner, if requested.
  • Prepare for end-of-life. Ensure that any specific rituals are well documented. [1]

Thinking points


1. Rumbold, B.D. (2007). A Review of spiritual assessment in health care practice. MJA, 186(10), S60-S62. Reproduced with permisson.