Faith & Healing: Can Religion Improve Health? While the Debate Rages in Journals and Med Schools, More Americans Ask for Doctors' Prayers

By Kalb, Claudia | Newsweek, November 10, 2003 | Go to article overview

Faith & Healing: Can Religion Improve Health? While the Debate Rages in Journals and Med Schools, More Americans Ask for Doctors' Prayers


Kalb, Claudia, Newsweek


Byline: Claudia Kalb

On a quiet Saturday afternoon, Ming He, a fourth-year medical student in Dallas, came across a man dying in the VA Hospital. Suffering from a rare cancer and hooked up to an oxygen tank, the man, an Orthodox Jew, could barely breathe, let alone speak. There were no friends or relatives by his bed to comfort him. When the young student walked into his room, the man looked at her and said, "Now that I'm dying, I realize that I never really learned how to live." Ming He, 26, had no idea how to respond.

"I thought, 'My God, the chaplain doesn't work on weekends, what do I do?' " She held the man's hand for a few minutes in silence; two days later, he died. And as soon as she could, she signed up for "Spirituality and Medicine" at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, a course that teaches students how to talk to patients about faith and illness.

More than half of the med schools in the country now offer such courses--up from just three a decade ago--largely because patients are demanding more spiritual care. According to a NEWSWEEK Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they would welcome a conversation with their physician about faith; the same number say they believe that praying to God can cure someone--even if science says the person doesn't stand a chance. On Beliefnet, a popular interfaith Web site, fully three quarters of more than 35,000 online prayer circles are health related: patients' loved ones--as well as total strangers--can log on and send prayers into the electronic ether, hoping to heal cancers, disabilities, chronic illness and addiction. Popular practices like these, as well as the growing belief in the medical community that what happens in a person's mind (and, possibly, soul) can be as important to health as what happens on the cellular level, are leading many doctors to embrace the God they banished from the clinic long ago in favor of technological and pharmaceutical progress.

All over the medical establishment, legitimate scientists are seeking the most ethical, effective ways to combine patients' spiritual and religious beliefs with high-tech treatment. Former mutual-fund tycoon Sir John Templeton spends as much as $30 million a year funding scientific projects that explore the nature of God (sidebar). "The Anatomy of Hope," a meditation on the effects of optimism and faith on health, by New Yorker medical writer Jerome Groopman, M.D., is coming out early next year. The National Institutes of Health plans to spend $3.5 million over the next several years on "mind/body" medicine. And this weekend Harvard Medical School will hold a conference on spirituality and health, focusing on the healing effects of forgiveness. "There's been a tremendous shift in the medical profession's openness to this topic," says Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania who is studying the biological effects of meditation and prayer on the brain. "People like me --are very intrigued by what we're seeing."

Modern medicine, of course, still demands scientific proof on top of anecdotal evidence. So over the past decade, researchers have been conducting hundreds of studies, trying to scientifically measure the effects of faith and spirituality on health. Can religion slow cancer? Reduce depression? Speed recovery from surgery? Lower blood pressure? Can belief in God delay death? While the research results have been mixed (chart), the studies inevitably run up against the difficulty of using scientific methods to answer what are, essentially, existential questions. How do you measure the power of prayer? Can one person's prayer be stronger--and more effective--than another's? How do you separate the health benefits of going to church or synagogue from the fact that people who attend religious services tend to smoke less and be less depressed than those who don't?

For critics of this trend, that's precisely the problem. …

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