"Recent research has shown that religion and spirituality are major sources of comfort and support for patients confronting advanced disease," said the study's senior author, Tracy Balboni, of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
"Our findings indicate that patients whose spiritual needs are supported by their medical team, including doctors, nurses and chaplains, have better quality of life near death and receive less aggressive medical care at the end of life," Balboni added.
The study involved 343 incurable cancer patients at hospital and cancer centers around the country.
Participants were interviewed about their means of coping with their illness, the degree to which their spiritual needs were met by the medical team and their preferences regarding end-of-life treatment.
The researchers then tracked each patient's course of care during the remainder of his or her life.
They found that patients whose spiritual needs were largely or completely supported by the medical team were likely to transition to hospice care at the end of life.
Additionally, among patients relying on their religious beliefs to cope with their illness, spiritual support reduced their risk of receiving aggressive medical interventions at the end of life.
Support of patients' spiritual needs by the medical team was also associated with better patient well-being at the end of life, with scores on average being 28 percent higher among those receiving spiritual support.
"Our findings suggest that spiritual care from the medical system has important ramifications for patients at the end of life, including helping them transition to comfort-focused care and improving their well-being near death," said Balboni.
The study is published by the Journal of Clinical Oncology on its web site and later will be published in a print edition.