Magazine article Insight on the News

Medicine Faces Up to Power of Religious Faith in Health, Recovery

Magazine article Insight on the News

Medicine Faces Up to Power of Religious Faith in Health, Recovery

Article excerpt

If a certain lifestyle factor aids recovery in areas where little else helps, such as with drug and alcohol abuse, or in preventing violence among inner-city youth and in improving prison-inmate rehabilitation -- all very costly in government dollars -- wouldn't we ignore it at our peril?

This factor, which is linked with enhanced recovery from surgery, longer lives, lower blood pressure, greater ability to handle stress, less drug and alcohol abuse and lowered delinquency and crime rates is the "R"-word: religion. It already has been included in some, but not much, government-funded research.

Medical education and care is poised on the brink of a paradigm shift in which spiritual activities no longer are ignored as health factors. Increasingly, religious commitment is surfacing as a clinically relevant factor in medical recovery. A recent study at Dartmouth Medical School showed that a consistent predictor of who survived heart surgery was the strength of a patient's religious commitment. In this study of 232 patients, those who said they derived no strength or comfort from their religious faith had almost three times the risk of death in the six months following surgery compared to patients who found at least some strength. None of the deeply religious died, compared to 12 percent of those who rarely or never went to church. If the study had omitted religious-commitment variables, this would not have been discovered, and a means for enhancing recovery would have been ignored in favor of a costly medical procedure.

As a result of the significance of these findings, Dr. Thomas Oxman and his colleagues suggested that inquiring about a person's religious commitment can be as important to a patient's health prognosis as inquiring about other lifestyle habits such as smoking: "Cigarette smoking and hypertension are risk factors for coronary-artery disease through still unknown mechanisms, yet physicians recommend reduction," they stated. "Physicians may eventually be advised to make relatively simple inquiries about, and reinforcement of, group participation and religious involvement as routinely as they inquire and advise about cigarette smoking and hypertension." At 40 of the nation's 126 medical schools, students are now taught to make such inquires.

Similarly, a study of heart-transplant patients at the University of Pittsburgh, found that those with strong beliefs and who participated in religious activities complied better with their medical regimen and had better physical functioning and emotional well-being at their 12-month follow-ups. …

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