(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.