Spiritual and religious interventions for adults in the latter stage of a disease

Being ill and near to the end of life can raise questions such as "Why me? Why now?". The experience may start or increase thoughts of a spiritual or religious nature. Some research has found that having spiritual or religious awareness, or both, may help a person cope with disease and dying. We conducted our review through searches for studies that were randomised controlled trials. We only included such studies if they evaluated an intervention that involved a spiritual or religious aspect, such as prayer and meditation, and aimed to support adults in the terminal phase of a disease. We found five studies. In total, the studies involved 1130 participants. Two studies evaluated meditation. Three evaluated the work of a palliative care team that involved physicians, nurses and chaplains. Studies compared those who received the intervention with those who did not. Studies evaluated the interventions in various ways including whether it helped in any way a person's quality of life.

There was inconclusive evidence that meditation and palliative care teams that involve a chaplain or spiritual counsellor help patients feel emotionally supported. The findings of the review are limited. This is because none of the studies measured whether the intervention helped the person cope with the disease process, and also it is unclear whether all participants receiving the palliative care team interventions were offered support from a chaplain. All the studies were undertaken in one country, making it difficult to draw conclusions as to whether the intervention would work elsewhere.

Authors' conclusions: 

We found inconclusive evidence that interventions with spiritual or religious components for adults in the terminal phase of a disease may or may not enhance well-being. Such interventions are under-evaluated. All five studies identified were undertaken in the same country, and in the multi-disciplinary palliative care interventions it is unclear if all participants received support from a chaplain or a spiritual counsellor. Moreover, it is unclear in all the studies whether the participants in the comparative groups received spiritual or religious support, or both, as part of routine care or from elsewhere. The paucity of quality research indicates a need for more rigorous studies.

Read the full abstract...

As terminal disease progresses, health deteriorates and the end of life approaches, people may ask "Why this illness? Why me? Why now?" Such questions may invoke, rekindle or intensify spiritual or religious concerns. Although the processes by which these associations occur are poorly understood, there is some research evidence for associations that are mainly positive between spiritual and religious awareness and wellness, such as emotional health.


This review aimed to describe spiritual and religious interventions for adults in the terminal phase of a disease and to evaluate their effectiveness on well-being.

Search strategy: 

We searched 14 databases to November 2011, including the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials and MEDLINE.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTS) if they involved adults in the terminal phase of a disease and if they evaluated outcomes for an intervention that had a spiritual or religious component. Primary outcomes were well-being, coping with the disease and quality of life.

Data collection and analysis: 

In accordance with the inclusion criteria, two review authors independently screened citations. One review author extracted data which was then checked by another review author. We considered meta-analysis for studies with comparable characteristics.

Main results: 

Five RCTs (1130 participants) were included. Two studies evaluated meditation, the others evaluated multi-disciplinary palliative care interventions that involved a chaplain or spiritual counsellor as a member of the intervention team. The studies evaluating meditation found no overall significant difference between those receiving meditation or usual care on quality of life or well-being. However, when meditation was combined with massage in the medium term it buffered against a reduction in quality of life. In the palliative care intervention studies there was no significant difference in quality of life or well-being between the trial arms. Coping with the disease was not evaluated in the studies. The quality of the studies was limited by under-reporting of design features.