(CNN)Life's big questions drew Dr. Victoria Sweet to a career in medicine. "Your job is to deal with birth, suffering and death. It just captivated my imagination," said Sweet, now a bestselling author and associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Does spirituality belong at the doctor's office?
"Medicine attracted me because I felt it was about the realest thing you could do," she said. As a physician, Sweet cared for people through the most difficult -- or most joyous -- moments of their lives.
Across her career in medicine though, Sweet said she watched the field eroded by a growing emphasis on efficiency and profit.
Physicians now spend more than half their time on tasks that aren't face-to-face with patients, a 2017 study found. Even during in-person consultations, a 2020 study said, a large proportion of physician time is devoted to using electronic health records.
Sweet saw a shift from more holistic medicine rooted in caring to an industry treating health care as a commodity. "It's a commodification that, I think, completely leaves out the essentials," she said.
What's essential, Sweet said, is creating space for a real, person-to-person connection in medicine. "The essence of what goes on between doctor and patient is very profound," she said. "That space, to me, seems sacred."
At the 10th annual Conference on Religion and Medicine this month, Sweet will give a plenary talk titled "Space for the Sacred in the Care of the Sick." The conference highlights scholarship focused on the intersection of health care and religion, including some organizations that argue we must make room for both the sacred -- and for spirituality -- in the doctor's office.
"Modern medicine is secular," said Gary Ferngren, a professor emeritus of history at Oregon State University who studies the history of medicine and religion. "Since the late 19th century, it has developed very rapidly in cutting itself off from any religious or spiritual values."
For much of human history, societies used religious frameworks to understand the meaning of disease and pain, Ferngren has written. Illness could be attributed to causes such as a magical curse or divine punishment.
A more up-to-date understanding of disease gradually replaced those views. Today's doctors are -- thankfully -- unlikely to prescribe an exorcism or suggest patients make sacrifices to Asclepius, the Greco-Roman god of medicine.
But Ferngren has written that the historic presence of religion in the sick room also offered patients tools for grappling with questions still relevant in the 21st century. At a time when health care and religion were more closely aligned, a patient might receive not only medication when consulting a doctor but also religious consolation, comfort and meaning.
"What happens at death's door?" Ferngren said. "To a person lying in bed and wondering what kind of future there is, it's tremendously important."
In fact, many patients would like to discuss spiritual matters with their health care providers: One study found that 83% of patients want physicians to ask about their spiritual beliefs, especially when they're facing life-threatening illness, serious medical conditions and bereavement.
"A high percentage of people, if they're in the hospital for a physical illness, would like to talk to their physician about spiritual matters and have a conversation," said Dr. John Graham, president and CEO of the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center, a cosponsor of this month's conference.
Graham has defined spirituality as "our innate ability to connect -- to connect to others, to our environment, to the transcendent mystery and to our true, deepest self." Like Sweet, he said modern medicine's focus on efficiency leaves out that broader view of patients' well-being and their spiritual and religious needs during illness.
Addressing such needs is known as spiritual care, which Graham said most physicians don't have adequate training to do.
When working with medical students today, Graham shares lists of questions that might open the door to a deeper conversation with patients. "They could ask: 'In the past, when you go through a difficult problem, where have you found the strength to get through?' " Graham said.
For some patients, the answer is religion. Some patients are glad to share their own faith practices, Graham said. Or they might mention a connection to nature. Others talk about meditation or a trusted family member they've looked to for guidance.
Each patient brings different beliefs to the conversation. And advocates believe that all individuals -- including atheists -- can benefit from access to spiritual care.
"Atheists, religious, humanists -- everyone has that spirituality or inner life, the need for a sense of meaning and purpose," said Christina Puchalski, a physician and the founder of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health. "If they're feeling a lack of that, it could be a source of spiritual distress."
Spiritual distress has been shown to be especially high in patients coping with serious and chronic illness, Puchalski said, and addressing it is critical in the case of palliative care.
"People who have high spiritual distress -- that's often linked to higher depression and anxiety," she said. "People who have high spiritual well-being also tend to have better health overall."