Putting faith in medicine: Medical establishment moves toward a more holistic model of health care

Published: Saturday, Jan. 12 2013 5:00 a.m. MST

Dr. Andrew Newberg poses with images of brain scans at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia in 2006. He published one of the first studies on meditation and the brain.

Matt Rourke, AP

For months Dorothy May of Darien, Ill., ignored the ache in her abdomen. After a year, however, the pain still hadn't left, so she finally went to see a doctor. "Nothing is wrong," she was told.

By then she'd lost considerable weight and knew better, so she sought a second opinion. That's when she learned she had stage 4 colon cancer.

“My cells had just ran out of control like mad lab rats,” she said. “My body was dying in pieces.”

May, a psychologist then in her 70s, was told that even with treatment, she’d be lucky to live for three or four months. Hearing this, her family and friends rallied around her, initiating what she called “healing circles,” which involved prayer, meditation and holding hands.

“I just felt as if I were in a flow of divine energy,” she said.

May's tumor shrunk, surgery went smoothly and radiation and chemotherapy yielded few side effects. Strong at 82, May credits spirituality as well as science for her recovery.

“I think that without the (spiritual practices) I wouldn’t have made it at all. Well, maybe. But certainly not spiritually intact, emotionally intact.”

May’s story is representative of millions of others. The vast majority of medical and psychiatric patients have spiritual needs, according to a recent research review published in ISRN Psychiatry, a peer-reviewed, open-access journal. However, her story is also exceptional in that, according to the article, most patients' spiritual needs go unmet.

The rift between faith and medicine is mostly a 20th century phenomenon, a product of the ascendance of technology and Sigmund Freud's focus on the extreme aspects of religion, according to the "Handbook of Religion and Health" published by Oxford University. The past decade, however, has seen signs of reunion, due in part to a surge in scientific research.

Between 2000 and 2010, at least 2,100 studies examined the relationship between religion or spirituality — referred to as RS — and health. That compares to just 1,200 studies over the preceding century-plus. A majority of these new studies show a significant positive relationship between RS and health.

An ounce of prevention

Gertrude Baines, who lived to 115 and was the world’s oldest person prior to her death in 2009, credited God when asked why she’d lived so long. “Ask him,” she told CNN in 2006. “I took good care of myself, the way he wanted me to."

While there's widespread agreement that RS practices help patients to cope with chronic or terminal illness, their greatest health benefits may lie in their preventive power. And the evidence is more than anecdotal.

“There’s now close to 2,000 quantitative, original studies that show that religious involvement is related to better health,” said Dr. Harold Koenig, Director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical Center.

This research is summarized in the "Handbook of Religion and Health." Significant positive relationships exist in the majority of studies that examine RS and mental health characteristics such as well-being and happiness, hope, optimism, meaning and purpose, self-esteem, sense of control, social support and positive character traits.

Koenig believes these mental health benefits may derive from the coping resources and life-enhancing community that religion can provide. They also have physiological consequences, he said, and thus impact physical health, risk of disease and response to treatment.

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