Doctors believe faith can heal

Doctors and faith

BY JIM RITTER Health Reporter jritter@suntimes.com

A majority of American doctors believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health, a study has found.

And nearly two in five doctors believe religion and spirituality can help prevent bad outcomes such as heart attacks, infections and even death, according to the University of Chicago nationwide survey of 2,000 physicians.

“Most physicians apply medical science while maintaining a belief that God intervenes in patients’ health,” Dr. Farr Curlin and colleagues wrote in the Archives of Internal Medicine.
Cures ‘that don’t make sense’

Religious doctors were more likely than nonreligious doctors to believe this — and to report that patients bring up religious issues.

Dr. Wayne Detmer, an internist at Lawndale Christian Health Center, said all doctors have seen cures of patients “that don’t make sense based on our current understanding of physiology or medicine.”

Detmer recalls one patient, disabled by a neurological condition, who was able to walk again after praying. A pastor, diagnosed with terminal lymphoma, is still alive after 13 years. And a suicidal patient has regained the willingness to live after prayer.

Detmer said he can’t prove God made these patients better. But he notes the Bible says Jesus healed people. “It’s not so much of a stretch to believe He can still do it.”

About three out of four doctors believe religion and spirituality give patients a positive, hopeful state of mind and help them cope with illness and suffering.

But there are possible drawbacks. About one-third of doctors believe religion and spirituality can cause patients to refuse, delay or stop medical therapy or avoid taking responsibility for their health, the U. of C. study found.

And 45 percent of doctors said religion and spirituality can cause guilt, anxiety or other negative emotions that lead to increased patient suffering.

Nevertheless, 85 percent of doctors believe the influence of religion and spirituality is generally positive.
Giving patients false hope?

The role of religion is one of the most contentious issues in medicine. Many studies have found there are health benefits to prayer, church attendance, etc., but critics say those studies are flawed. Some experts believe religion can do more harm than good, by for example, giving patients false hopes.

Among the most vocal critics is Richard Sloan of Columbia University Medical Center, author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine.

Sloan is troubled by the study’s finding that 54 percent of doctors believe God intervenes in patients’ health. “That’s a religious assertion, not a scientific assertion,” he said.

Sloan noted the survey had a 63 percent response rate — “acceptable, but lower than you’d like.”

Consequently, researchers should be cautious about interpreting the results, Sloan said.

Study numbers

  • 54% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being intervenes in patients’ health.
  • 76% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being helps patients cope with and endure illness and suffering.
  • 74% of doctors surveyed believe God or another supernatural being gives patients a hopeful state of mind.

April 10, 2007
Chicago Sun-Times