Prayer makes medical advances
By WES ALLISON
© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2001
CLEARWATER -- As a physician, Dr. Paul Goldenfarb was trained to attack his patients' cancer with medicine and surgery. He was comfortable with that approach. Then he realized how many people also craved spiritual help in fighting their disease.
Now, after years of praying with patients or otherwise accommodating their spiritual beliefs, he is convinced that people of faith heal better. And growing scientific evidence backs that up.
"I was being guided by my patients," said Goldenfarb, an oncologist at Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater who has been practicing for 30 years. "They would say, "God is going to get us through this,' and I would say, "Look, I'll take any help I can.' "
Goldenfarb was one of more than 600 doctors, clergy, nurses and other health workers attending Spirituality & Healing in Medicine, a two-day conference sponsored by Harvard Medical School and the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
The event, held on Clearwater Beach Friday and Saturday, was designed to help participants better understand the connection many patients feel between their physical and spiritual well-being, and how spirituality can help them heal.
For decades, religion and medicine have been separate entities, often at odds. But doctors are becoming more aware of the importance of faith in healing, experts said, and about half of U.S. medical schools now teach students to address patients' spiritual needs.
"Take a religious history (of your patients). That's all we're asking," Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health at Duke University, urged the packed conference room at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort.
Several studies presented at the conference showed that the gap can be huge between patients and their doctors on this issue. Dr. David Larson, a psychiatrist and president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research, which studies spirituality in health, said doctors often just don't understand how important faith is to their patients.
A Time magazine poll found 82 percent of Americans believe in the healing power of prayer. In another study Larson cited, 79 percent of hospital patients said they believed faith and spirituality can help people, 56 percent believed it had helped them recover and 63 percent said doctors should talk to patients about this it.
Just 10 percent of doctors surveyed had done so, however.
The Rev. Mack Sigmon, senior minister at Peace Memorial Presbyterian Church in downtown Clearwater, was not surprised.
He frequently finds that parishioners, especially the elderly and seriously ill, want their doctors to understand the importance of their faith, but doctors do not. Patients such as Faith McKiernan say they don't understand how anyone could divorce the two. She credits her faith in God, as well as regular prayer, for helping her battle breast cancer. She was diagnosed around Thanksgiving, had surgery and gets weekly chemotherapy from Goldenfarb. Right now, her prognosis appears good.
"I don't have my religion on my sleeve, I keep it to myself, but I think we all have to pray," said Mrs. McKiernan, who is in her 70s.
In the past 10 years, a number of studies have found that people who pray recover from injury or illness better than those who don't. In one, published in the International Journal of Psychology in Medicine, researchers at Duke followed 4,000 people aged 65 or older and found that those who attended church at least once a week and prayed or studied the Bible daily had lower blood pressure than others.
Other studies showed that people who pray or attend church regularly have better survival rates after heart surgery and walk farther, sooner, after hip replacements.
The reasons are up for debate. Though many patients may believe in divine intervention, researchers say prayer and meditation also ease stress, and stress can slow healing.
"You turn off the worry, you turn off the stress," said Dr. Herbert Benson, director of the Mind/Body Institute. "There's nothing better than the Rosary, repetition over and over. A Jewish prayer, a Muslim prayer, a Protestant prayer can get you in the same place. You just have to believe."
Benson, an assistant professor at Harvard, stressed that this should not be confused with alternative medicine, nor does success depend on faith in any one religion. Doctors also should not impose their own beliefs, or lack of beliefs, on their patients. Not all doctors will be comfortable discussing faith with their patients, or praying with them. They still can ask patients about their beliefs and, if warranted, ask a chaplain to join them, or contact a minister. Goldenfarb said anything that helps ease the mind should help ease the body, and patients with a spiritual connection recover better than others. And although that was never suggested to him in medical school, he believes it makes sense.
"Flip it around. On a bad day, can you get a headache? Sure. The mind is talking to the body and hurting it," he said. "Why can't you flip that, and say the mind is talking to the body and helping it?
"It seems like a perfectly reasonable thing, if you accept the premise that the mind and the body can talk to each other."
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