Religion and Illness

Should physicians prescribe religious activities to treat medical ailments – just like they prescribe antibiotics? Why not! In an era of complementary medicine and alternative therapies, why not add religious activities to a long list of non-traditional therapies?

But the answer is not simple. There are people who think this is not a good idea. A group of 7 chaplains, representing a wide range of religions, and two biomedical researchers, have written an article in the New England Journal of Medicine expressing their concerns.

Polls do suggest that the U.S. population is highly religious, that most people believe in heaven and hell, the healing power of prayer, and the capacity of faith to aid in the recovery from disease. About 77 percent of hospitalized patients want physicians to consider their spiritual needs in the management of their problems.

Surveys of family physicians in U.S. strongly support the notion that religious beliefs can promote healing. Nearly 30 U.S. medical schools now offer courses on religion, spirituality, and health. Some physicians believe that going to church promotes good health.

But the authors of the article are troubled by the uncritical enthusiasm shown by the general public, individual physicians, and American medical schools in promoting religious activities as part of medical treatment. The authors feel that there is very little scientific evidence to show religious activities promotes good health. Their argument is summarised here:

1. Is there evidence of a link between religion and health?

Yes. Some studies have shown that regular church attendance, listening to religious television programs, praying, and reading the bible may be associated with improved health. But the authors believe that the evidence is generally weak and unconvincing, since most studies are poorly conducted. A prospective double blind trial would be most difficult to conduct.

2. Should physicians recommend religious activity as a way of providing comfort?

The authors quote a study that says: “The primary task of the physician is to cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always.” We know that many people do get comfort from religious activities. But is it ethical for a physician to prescribe religious activities to a patient without infringing on patient’s freedom of choice?

The authors feel that religious practices can be disruptive as well as healing. That physicians are not trained to engage in in-depth conversations with their patients about their spiritual concerns. And the physician and the patient may not have the same religious beliefs. Therefore, it may not be a good idea for physicians to get into prescribing religious activities to their patients.

3. Do patients want religious matters to be incorporated into their medical care?

Studies have shown that 40 to 50 percent of patients want physicians to attend to their spiritual needs. But these numbers do not emphasise the views of 50 to 60 percent of the patients who think otherwise. Most of these surveys are on inpatients. This may not be relevant to office and outpatient work.

What do you think? Do you agree with the arguments? Would you like your doctor to prescribe religious activities to you as part of medical treatment? Write to me at: 821A – 5th Street SW, Medicine Hat, AB T1A 4H7 or use my e-mail address.

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