VARIOUS forms of spirituality have long knocked on the door of
mainstream medicine, asking for acknowledgment as effective
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
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. …