Liz March 24, 2008 · 8:53 am
As a medical student and an atheist, I’d like to hear from the readers here on whether you’d like a promise from me that I’ll pray for you if my prayers would be without belief. I could see my self “sending good thoughts” out, but I would not feel comfortable promising to pray to a particular deity in whom I have no personal faith. Does it matter?
Chet M March 24, 2008 · 8:57 am
Deep down inside I am a very pessimistic agnostic, and yet the closest to religious I ever become is when I pray with my patients, which I do whenever requested. I have seen it work very well in the sense of enhancing a patients well being and morale, and once or twice I would attest that it has kept someone off of mechanical ventilation.
When I have a pateint who is ill, I will take help from any source – seen or unseen – to make him or her better, or at least comfort them in their remaining time.
Elizabeth March 24, 2008 · 9:16 am
I completely disagree with this article. It is too easy to alienate patients, rather than uplift them, when using religion. For example, what if the patient is an agnostic, or atheist? What if the patient believes in a different God?
Also, studies have not shown a benefit to prayer, and physicians need to concentrate on evidence-based medicine. Where is your evidence that this helps patients? What study are you using to form this opinion?
Emily March 24, 2008 · 9:20 am
I’m a hospital chaplain and seminary student, and I always wonder what doctors and nurses think when I introduce myself to a patient, talk with them, sometimes pray with them. I’m glad to hear that some doctors recognize the necessity of spiritual care for their patients, but this is a reminder that it doesn’t have to be the doctor who offers to pray if they are uncomfortable doing so – there is a chaplain in nearly every hospital, one who is comfortable with patients of all faith backgrounds. This chaplain is also available for doctors and nurses too, if they need spiritual support.
funlola o March 24, 2008 · 9:33 am
It may also help doctors if they realise that some ailments have spiritual or demonic roots which science may not readily have an answer for.
Gustavo March 24, 2008 · 9:35 am
In response to Liz’s query to readers, and as a believing (but often struggling & challenged Catholic), I would like to let her know that I would not want an insincere offer of prayer — from her, an athiest — merely to identify and attempt to bond with me. I would probably see through that; and even an unconscious perception of insincerity and doubt in her would prevail to impact my relationship with my physician.
Instead, I would a prefer sincere, “I wish you a speedy and complete recovery” or, “I wish you strength and fortitude.” “May your faith heal you and give you courage,” would likely well suffice.
Lopez March 24, 2008 · 9:38 am
Prayer does send out positive waves which according to different researches does heal patients.Religion doesn’t really matter. I guess it is the faith that counts. Numerous studies suggest that persistent repetition combined with faith works miracles. So personally, I would prefer a doctor who can reorganize my thoughts and pray with utmost sincerity for me ( Though it is awfully difficult to find one)
Dan March 24, 2008 · 9:47 am
Re #3: Studies show that prayer does not help in a double blind test. As far as I’m concerned, that shows that ‘God’ isn’t doing anything. However, the placebo effect is well documented and can be used to treat patients, at least on one level. That said, I agree that offering prayer to every patient would alienate many people (including myself), but I see no harm in accepting a request to pray for someone. Though I do not believe in a God (I am a rather staunch atheist), a doctor’s first duty is to heal.
Rick March 24, 2008 · 9:55 am
This patient would like to reply to Liz #1 and Elizabeth #3.
Liz, yes, send your “good thoughts” – this is your form of prayer. You don’t need to tell your patients who your God is or that you’re an atheist and don’t have one. It’s your care and faith in your patient that matters most.
Elizabeth, I’m sorry for your closed and hardened heart. First of all, what the article said was that the request should come from the patient. This should be obvious. Second, I read an article here in NYTimes a few months ago about gratitude. It mentioned studies, if I recall correctly, that showed how those who frequently feel or express gratitude are healthier and happier in thier lives (I’m paraphrasing). I read that article and thought to myself, “what they’re talking about here used to be called prayer,” the kind of prayer that thanks your God for the blessings in your life, such as saying grace at meals, praising God in church, praying with your family, etc. Third, among my closest friends and mentors are a Hindu, two Muslims and several Jews. In times of grave illness, pain or crisis, several of these friends have told me, a Catholic, that they would pray for me and they have. Obviously, they would not be praying to my God but to their own. For me, their prayers were a profound gift, perhaps even more so because their care and their prayers crossed the boundaries between religions to reach me, and I was deeply touched and grateful. It is a tremendous gift from a friend of one faith to a friend of another faith, do not doubt it for a moment.
jack March 24, 2008 · 9:56 am
Considering that there is absolutely no evidence that a god exists, much less that the supposed god cares for individual human beings, I would question the exepertise of a physician who brought up prayer in any way connected with my treatment. I would want a thinking physician, one who examines carefully all available information in a given case and makes rational decisions. There is no reason to eliminate hope from treatment, but I prefer to face the facts of a case.
adventa March 24, 2008 · 10:00 am
It certainly cannot harm to have positive, compassionate thoughts/prayers going from one human being to another. On the contrary, look at what the overwhelming consequences are of NEGATIVE, hate-filled thoughts . . . war and devastation, for example. Perhaps if we would spend more of our time on the one than the other, our world would be a remarkably different place.
David March 24, 2008 · 10:07 am
Although I cannot recall the details, there was a recent study of prayer and medical outcomes for heart patients. It turned out that the patients who were told that someone would be praying for them had worse outcomes than those who were told nothing. One possible explanation given was that the patient might perceive that their condition was worse than it actually was because, that medicine was inadequate to treat it and that prayer was all that was left.
Just as a minister would not practice medicine, I would not expect a physician to be a spiritual practitioner. Personally, I would prefer that physicians left religion out of their medical practice.
Suzanne Kacmarcik March 24, 2008 · 10:11 am
If a person (clinician) cannot “pray” for someone in earnest and with their heart in it, they would be lying to their pt & they are being unethical. If the pt believes he/she will be relieved, then they must find a clinician who support that method of treatment.
PC March 24, 2008 · 10:16 am
Although I think most patients would see through an insincere offer to pray, and an atheist or agnostic might be put off by such an offer, what is important here is for the doctor to create some kind of relationship with the patient. It doesn’t have to be deep, binding, and lifelong, but it would make a huge difference to most patients to realize that their doctors SEE them as individuals, not just as “Patient X in Bed B in Room 531.” The personal touch of noticing whether the patient is religious would matter to that person; it’s a question of being somewhat sensitive to who they are and what they are about. It’s really just an extension of a good bedside manner.
I’m an agnostic myself, but it would matter enormously to me to have people I like say they would pray for me, or even that they would be thinking about me. There is something in that mental connection and emotional support that provides strength, and I really believe that helps to heal. Is it a medication or a procedure? No, but I think it does have a place in a good doctor’s arsenal of remedies. My first choice would always be to have a doctor who cared enough to notice my personality at least to the extent of knowing whether I was religious or not. A doctor who is cool and detached might be extremely proficient in the science, but a caring human being can be a powerful instiller of confidence.
And I think there HAVE been studies done that reveal better results for patients for whom others have prayed, or even practiced some variation of healing thought. Don’t write it off too quickly.
Jim March 24, 2008 · 10:17 am
Religion profoundly affects how people choose to eat, sleep, have sex and work. Knowing the religion of one’s patients helps immensely in understanding how they get sick and get well, as part of their lifestyle.
In the end, no doctor can heal anyone, all he or she can do is help them recover – based on percentages in drug trials – from a temporary illness before they die. Medicine is the fine art of the bell curve, never able to know which one will be cured and which one killed. Sharing in someone’s journey (if one does pray) is part of the bigger picture. Doctors are the shamans who offer relief and temporary recovery throughout short, unpredictable lives. It is priests and shamans who force us to confront questions of ultimate reality.
David March 24, 2008 · 10:20 am
Well said, Rick (Comment #9). Despite being atheist, I completely agree with your sentiments. The point of this act isn’t necessarily a belief in prayer or miracles, but a reassurance to a patient. Especially in a mental health situation, if a theist psychiatrist believes that a patient will find comfort in knowing that her doctor will pray on her behalf, then it’s most definitely both ethical and professionally responsible to pursue that means.
tamar March 24, 2008 · 10:22 am
#9, RIck — Jews, Christians, and Muslims pray to the same one God (as the three monotheistic faith traditions). So your comment that your Jewish and Muslim friends (you, a Catholic) “would not be praying to my God but to their own” puzzled me.
Mark March 24, 2008 · 10:22 am
If a doctor offered me prayers, I would find another doctor. I need medical science to cure my ills (and I had a rather large tumor removed from my pituitary about 6 years ago), not the platitudes applied from man’s greatest self-delusion. I got through my situation not with prayer, but with determination and a sense of humor. Keep your religion out of my medical care.
Even if I did believe there is some all-powerful creative force, and even if they did “keep their eye on the sparrow”, why would I want to bother that force with pleading for my life? I live, or I don’t. That’s all there is to it. If there is something after this life, then great, wonderful. If not, then that’s fine too. Let the theologians wrangle amongst themselves who will see paradise and who will see eternal torment based on some proscribed set of guidelines and rituals. I am more concerned with this life, and living it to the best that I can. Enjoy your religion, but please keep it out of my face.
Star March 24, 2008 · 10:23 am
I was once told wrongly that I might have metastatic cancer…The doctor offered to pray with me. I said, couldn’t we do more tests? It turned out to be a cyst. I really don’t credit the prayer for this, but who knows. They come by in the hospital and say prayers for you, too. What are you supposed to say–“NO! Dont’ pray for me”? I am also kind of irritated by doctors and their staffs who keep saying, “Stay positive. Hope for the best.” It’s just not how my mind works. And if I don’t find myself doing it, I don’t want to think I am hurting myself.
Asa March 24, 2008 · 10:25 am
Ok, I have a question, or two I wish to ask the folks who believe in the power of prayer and have a conception of God as an entity that potentially could intervene in such matters…I ask this out of earnest curiosity.
First, If God has a divine plan (I’m taking this as a view that many prayers must have as I recall hearing people say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” or “It is all God’s will”), and he knows everything and what will happen, then why pray at all? Will prayer alter God’s plan? There seems to be a contradiction within the belief system there, and I would love to understand how that is worked out for those who ascribe to these views.
Second, does God care more for a person who is prayed for than a person who is not? Is that fair? Is it the fault of a person if no one is praying for them specifically? It seems to me that if God is what some say he is then he should care equally for all suffering people. Something about this prayer business is going over my head.
Last I just would like to observe the study done a year or two ago where they looked at the outcome of patients who were prayed for and patients who were not prayed for. Stunningly, the study found that patients who received no prayer did better than patients who were prayed for. They had expected to find no difference, or perhaps, that the prayer receiving group would do better, but this turned out not to be the case. So, wouldn’t it be better then to not pray for anyone?
Scott March 24, 2008 · 10:28 am
As a physician I come across situations where we do not have a remedy for a disease. Advanced cancer is a good example.
Patients look for whatever remedy is available that might help. Remember Laetril and Steve McQueen.
To me religion is a delusion. Sometimes to some people being deluded is a good thing if somehow it makes them feel better. But is it the physician’s place to maintain or promote delusion? I will leave that to the shamans/priests/rabbis to maintain and promote delusion and try to keep on the side of the rational as a physician.
Rowan March 24, 2008 · 10:29 am
I think that you should have more than a passing acquaintance with someone before you make the offer of prayer. If I go to an Urgent Care clinic with the flu, and the harried doctor who’s seen eight patients in the last hour tells me he’ll pray for my recovery, how can he possibly offer anything sincere or personal as a prayer? “God, please bless the people I saw today,” is impersonal enough that I wouldn’t call it praying for *me*, taking home a list of patients and conditions to remember in his prayers would violate my expectation of privacy, and time spent stopping between appointments to pray would be better spent with the patients.
However, if my regular doctor with whom I have an established relationship, or a doctor treating me for an ongoing or serious condition, offered to pray for me than I would accept those prayers gratefully.
To poster #1: Please don’t pray insincerely. It’s far better to simply say, “I will be thinking positively for you.”
I’m non-Christian, but I don’t reject well-wishes or prayers or good energy from any faith. So long as faith isn’t taking the place of care, it can’t possibly hurt me if, in addition to surgery or medicine, my doctor employs faith. Not enough is really known about faith to say whether prayer works, but I don’t think it will hurt.
Eli Rector March 24, 2008 · 10:35 am
#7 No studies have ever shown that prayer works. Feeling good, thinking positive, and remaining hopeful works. And if your are religious prayer can help cultivate these feelings. But prayer on it’s own does absolutely nothing. Studies HAVE shown that.
As an atheist, I’m always a little creeped out when people tell me they’ll “pray for me”. I wonder if this might involve dancing, incense, or chickens.
But I’m glad their keeping me in their thoughts.