Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

The Power of Beliefs


Explore your patient’s beliefs that invite healing, as well as those that are causing them to suffer. By understanding this, you can guide them to do more of the former and less of the latter. 

“Do you believe in karma? I’ve been thinking a lot about why this happened to me,” said my 26-year-old patient who had recently been diagnosed with lung cancer. “I did some things when I was on my second tour that still haunt me. I also think that in some twisted way this is supposed to help me connect with my mom better. I was a jerk growing up.”


Being diagnosed with a chronic or terminal illness challenges our worldview. It often launches patients and their family members into a quest to make sense of their experience. While trying to make sense of the senseless, we construct illness narratives. These illness narratives are ripe with beliefs. 


What is a belief? 

Beliefs can facilitate healing and resilience. But they can also prevent healing and invite suffering. A person’s beliefs, or meaning making systems, come from the history their experiences, and are constructed across a lifespan. Illness narratives, and the beliefs that comprise them, become the reality of illness experience the patient and their family. 


Distinguishing different beliefs 

When we’re invited to listen to the illness narratives of our patients and their family members, we have the opportunity to distinguish, with curiosity, which beliefs can facilitate healing and which beliefs restrain healing. One person’s helpful belief could be another’s unhelpful belief, which is why it’s important to understand what each belief means to each patient. 


For my patient, it was important to understand what his beliefs about etiology did for him. Did his belief about karma influence the way he interacted with his illness? Did it promote or hinder his perceived amount of control? Did it facilitate cohesion and connection with his mom? What did he believe about healing? About his prognosis? Did anyone else in his family hold the same beliefs? An important part of my work was to learn how to challenge constraining beliefs, and how to empower facilitating beliefs.  


To learn more, I encourage you to read  “Illness Beliefs Model,” by Drs. Janice Bell and Lorraine Wright.






This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.