Is faith a wonder drug? Scientists say spirituality can influence healing, but how remains a mystery

by Rebecca Rosen Lum
Contra Costa Times
 
Carla Dodd was 43 and pregnant with her second child when two rapid-fire brain hemorrhages threatened to end her life. Her husband, John, is a medical malpractice attorney — logical, analytical. But Martinez resident John Dodd says he thinks prayer — by friends, fellow congregants and strangers as far away as Africa — had much to do with his wife’s long-shot recovery.
Whether intercess0ry prayer — that made on behalf of another — has any bearing on a desired outcome is a matter of debate, but scientists are taking a hard look at the value of faith as an instrument in healing the self.
Numerous studies show a link between faith and outlook, faith and well-being, faith and healing times.Scientists at such prestigious institutions as California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, Duke University in North Carolina, and the George Washington University Institute for Spirituality and Health in the nation’s capital are exploring the relationship of prayer and faith to healing.

More than half of physicians in an April survey by a group at the University of Chicago said that religion and spirituality significantly influence patients’ health.

But the exact mechanism by which it works remains elusive.

“Does it change your blood markers?” asked neuropsychiatrist James Duffy, president and CEO of the Institute of Religion and Health in Houston. “You’re going to see a lot of research directed at that over the next few years.”

Faith-based practices can help those with chronic conditions, including traumatic brain injury, spinal cord injury, stroke and arthritis, say the authors of a study at the University of Missouri at Columbia.

“Religion is infrequently discussed in rehabilitation settings and is rarely investigated in rehabilitation research,” said University of Missouri health psychologist Brick Johnstone. “To better meet the needs of persons with disabilities, this needs to change.”

Yoga, reading of religious texts, meditation or the laying of hands have value in a clinical setting, the researchers concluded.

To inquire about a patient’s religious beliefs “is no different than inquiring about their sexual, psychological, substance use and legal histories,” said Johnstone, who directs the university’s Spirituality and Health Research Project.

“Our goal is to bring to the conversation that health is more than fixing your body,” Duffy said. “Health is a transformative process that involves healing the spirit.”

Hospital officials have long left patients’ spiritual needs in the hands of chaplains, but they increasingly are reaching out to faith communities.

Parish, or faith community nursing, which combines spiritual and health services, has exploded since the American Nursing Association recognized the specialty in 2005.

Today, an estimated 10,000 faith community nurses work in American congregations.

John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek recently advertised for a supervising nurse with theological education. The new manager will offer support to nurses who work in religious congregations.

“We have a mission statement that says faith plays a role in healing,” said Dwayne Michael, director of pastoral care at John Muir. “We do a spiritual assessment (of each patient).”

“With the exception of hospital chaplains, a focus on the spirit is not often found in the delivery of health care,” said Rebecca Faith, who counsels, instructs and refers parishioners at First Congregational Church of Oakland. “Parish nurses fill that gap.”

Faith works as a nurse practitioner at UC San Francisco and is a registered nurse at Alta Bates Summit Hospital in Oakland.

Many chronic health problems have at their root a spiritual as well as a physiological dysfunction, she said.

“I see an epidemic of anxiety and fatigue among women. I will say, ‘How’s your spiritual life?’ and (a woman) will say, ‘I used to meditate but I don’t anymore.'”

A spiritual emptiness helps spur addiction, and irreverence for the body as a sacred vessel can lead to disorders such as obesity and hypertension, she said.

“What do I do with them? I pray, I enter into an I-thou divine relationship and I covenant with the community,” she said. “I speak to their values and beliefs.”

Many of her patients believe in intercessory prayer, she said.

In San Francisco, a leading researcher in mind-body medicine found a positive link between intercessory prayer and the well-being of people with AIDS.

Prayed-for patients in a study by late UC San Francisco professor Elizabeth Targ had fewer setbacks and lived longer than a comparison group. A follow-up study found the same results. Targ later found a link between spirituality and well-being among women with breast cancer.

There may be concrete reasons: Those praying for Carla Dodd were at her side often, dispensing affection and creating a comforting, restful atmosphere conducive to healing.

A connection notwithstanding, Jeff Leinen, medical director of the emergency department at Sutter Delta Hospital in Antioch, has qualms about medical practitioners assuaging the spirit. For one thing, it is too easy to project one’s faith onto a patient, he said.

Leinen says a prayer before he performs a procedure or when a patient dies, “but I say it quietly, and to myself.”

“Everybody has their own faith and belief,” he said. “You have to be very, very careful.”

At Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Walnut Creek, which offers classes in yoga and meditation, “We only do what has been shown clinically to work,” spokesman Jim Caroompas said. “These are very efficacious.”

Some academics recoil at the blurring of the line between faith and health care, saying prayer, meditation, and other faith practices resist definition or measurement.

Far more studies show no link between religious belief and healing than a positive one, said Richard Sloan, a Columbia University behavioral medicine professor and the author of “Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine.” Suggesting one can mislead people and put an unfair burden on them, he said.

“Look, nobody disputes that religion and spirituality bring comfort in a time of difficulty, but when spirituality is brought into medical care, it is another issue entirely,” he said.

“It can do all sort of harm because it causes people to confuse medical care with other aspects of their lives,” he said. “It can lead them to avoid conventional medical care. And it can lead them to believe their health problems are from inadequate faith and devotion.”

John Dodd, whose wife and daughter are now healthy, smiled when he was told about Sloan’s skepticism.

“He doesn’t realize there is so much to the art of medicine that is unknown,” he said. “(Doctors) don’t know everything because a lot of it isn’t in their hands — the unknown, the unpredictable, the unforeseeable.”

 

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