"I was quite surprised that it was really just lack of training that dominated the reasons why," senior author Dr. Tracy Balboni, a radiation oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, told Reuters Health.
However, the 204 physicians who participated in the study reported providing spiritual care to just 24 percent of their patients. Among 118 nurses, the figure was 31 percent.
The 69 patients with advanced cancers who took the survey reported even lower rates, saying 14 percent of nurses and six percent of physicians had provided them some sort of spiritual care.
Past research has shown that spiritual care for seriously ill patients improves their quality of life, increases their overall satisfaction with hospital care and decreases aggressive medical treatment, which may in turn result in lower overall health spending.
"There was a time when nurses and physicians may have said, 'That's not my job,' but I think the tides are changing," said palliative care researcher Betty Ferrell of City of Hope, a cancer research and treatment hospital in Duarte, California.
"I think we are realizing we can no longer ignore this aspect of care," said Ferrell, a professor of nursing who was not involved in the new study.
Yet the reasons why spiritual care is rarely incorporated into patient treatment and dialogue have been poorly understood.
To gain more insight, Balboni and her colleagues designed a survey - the first of its kind, to their knowledge - to compare attitudes toward spiritual care across randomly chosen patients, nurses and doctors in oncology departments at four hospitals.
The questions were geared toward identifying barriers preventing healthcare professionals from delivering spiritual care, beginning with whether anyone felt it was inappropriate for them to be doing so.
The participants' answers indicated that, on the contrary, a majority of providers and patients supported the appropriateness of eight specific examples of spiritual care, such as a doctor or nurse praying with a patient at his or her request or referring the patient to a hospital chaplain.
Next, the researchers asked participants to rate previous spiritual care experiences. Again, most ranked these as having a positive impact on care. A fourth possibility offered to nurses and doctors was lack of time.
"Indeed we found that on average 73 percent reported time to be a significant barrier to spiritual care provision to patients," Balboni told Reuters Health in an email.
But those who noted insufficient time as a problem provided spiritual care just as often as those who reported having enough time. That suggested time was not an issue after all, she added.
In fact, a lack of training stood out as the biggest barrier to providing spiritual care in this small study.
Only 13 percent of doctors and nurses reported having ever received spiritual care training.
But those who had training were seven to 11 times more likely to provide spiritual care to their patients than those who hadn't been trained.
A lack of "models" for training healthcare professionals to tend to patients' spiritual needs seems to be the underlying problem, Balboni told Reuters Health.