Healing Role of Spirituality Gains Ground

Article excerpt

VARIOUS forms of spirituality have long knocked on the door of mainstream medicine, asking for acknowledgment as effective treatment. But that knocking is now getting more insistent as a number of medical practitioners, armed with research data and experience, find themselves more open to the influence of spiritual faith and alternative-healing methods. Evidence of changing views was found here this week as some 800 scholars, doctors, clinicians, chaplains, and nurses from around the United States attended a course titled "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine." It was conducted under the auspices of the Harvard Medical School. Central to the proceedings of the seminar was an assumption that prayer and a patient's mental attitude can help in healing, and that the medical community should consider more than a patient's physical symptoms in treating disease. "This approach is what a lot of us know but have not heard anyone say before," said attendee Gerald Rexin, a chaplain at Stoneham General Hospital in Stoneham, Mass. "We are hearing that it is OK for physicians to bring prayer into the hospital." "It is certainly unimaginable that 20 years ago the Harvard Medical School would give even the time of day to something called 'Spirituality and Healing,"' says theologian Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School, a course faculty member. Shifting views on prayer's role Views on spirituality as well as the connection between mind and body differed dramatically among participants. Some were religious, others quite secular in their orientation. But the common ground was a willingness to entertain the idea that prayer helps patients, and that at a time of increasingly expensive health care, it is cheap and cost-effective to take it up. The course's guiding force is Harvard Medical School cardiologist Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Deaconess Hospital in Boston. Dr. Benson has pioneered a technique called "the relaxation response." The technique, which first emerged 20 years ago out of the popular transcendental meditation movement, shows that "when a person engages in a repetitive prayer, word, sound, or phrase, and when intrusive thoughts are passively disregarded, a specific set of physiologic changes ensue." In leading the 800 participants through a relaxation-response breathing exercise on Dec. 3, Benson told the audience that it does not matter what words are used in a prayer. "Whether it is the word Peace, Shalom, Our Father, or Hail Mary Full of Grace, the physiology is really the same," he stated. "We can all have the same profound feeling." Benson states that 60 to 90 percent of cases taken by physicians are cognitive or psychological problems. They are usually the result of anxiety or stress, and medical treatment can be reduced or even eliminated by prayer. "At a time of rising HMOs, if you could eliminate even 30 percent of doctor visits, you have real savings," he says. Data were offered quantifying the effectiveness of prayer used in a medical context to treat illnesses like insomnia, heart trouble, and the side-effects of cancer and AIDs. Evidence for the efficacy of various forms of prayer was straightforward. In 212 clinical studies conducted since the mid-1980s, 160 showed positive effects of religious commitment on health, while only 15 showed negative effects. In a study of mortality rates for certain heart conditions, 5 percent of church-goers died while 12 percent of nonchurch members did. …