Promoting Research Literacy for Improved Patient Outcomes

Religion, Spirituality, and the Hidden Curriculum: Medical Student and Faculty Reflections

Religion, Spirituality, and the Hidden Curriculum: Medical Student and Faculty Reflections


Religion and spirituality play an important role in physicians’ medical practice, but little research has examined their influence within the socialization of medical trainees and the hidden curriculum.


The objective is to explore the role of religion and spirituality as they intersect with aspects of medicine’s hidden curriculum.


Semiscripted, one-on-one interviews and focus groups (n = 33 respondents) were conducted to assess Harvard Medical School student and faculty experiences of religion/spirituality and the professionalization process during medical training. Using grounded theory, theme extraction was performed with interdisciplinary input (medicine, sociology, and theology), yielding a high inter-rater reliability score (kappa = 0.75).


Three domains emerged where religion and spirituality appear as a factor inmedical training. First, religion/spirituality may present unique challenges and benefits inrelation to the hidden curriculum. Religious/spiritual respondents more often reported to struggle with issues of personal identity, increased self-doubt, and perceived medical knowledge inadequacy. However, religious/spiritual participants less often described relationship conflicts within the medical team, work-life imbalance, and emotional stress arising from patient suffering. Second, religion/spirituality may influence coping strategies during encounters with patient suffering. Religious/spiritual trainees described using prayer, faith, and compassion as means for coping whereas nonreligious/nonspiritual trainees discussed compartmentalization and emotional repression. Third, levels of religion/spirituality appear to fluctuate in relation to medical training, with many trainees experiencing an increase in religiousness/spirituality during training.


Religion/spirituality has a largely unstudied but possibly influential role in medical student socialization. Future study is needed to characterize its function within the hidden curriculum.


Note: this article was featured in the APC Best Papers of 2015 bibliography.