Integrating Prayer into Medicine: a "whole person" approach

By Barry Bittman, MD

While last week's column was intended to challenge you, today's topic is a call to action that has the potential to improve the healthcare of our nation. It does not require a legislative vote, or an organized march on Washington, and it most certainly places no demands on those who wish to choose another approach.

What I am proposing is a gradual shift in healthcare that can be accomplished one person at a time. If enough people agree, the course of medicine in the future will naturally evolve along these lines with only the slightest stir.

As discussed last week, a dichotomy exists. The overwhelming majority of Americans pray for their health, yet prayer has not become a routine part of the physician-patient relationship. In keeping with last week's promise to present a scientific perspective, I'd like to share some fascinating information that supports my contention that spirituality should be integrated into conventional medicine.

In a 1988 article published in the Southern Medical Journal, Randall Byrd, MD described a fascinating experiment that included 393 individuals at San Francisco General Hospital. Patients admitted to the coronary care unit were randomly placed in either control or experimental groups. Control subjects received only medical care, while patients assigned to the experimental group were each prayed for by 5-7 individuals. Those who prayed were given only the patients' first names and their diagnosis. The study was perfectly blinded—meaning that neither the subjects nor their caregivers (physicians and nurses) knew which group each patient was in. Upon comparing the groups, a number of statistically significant findings surfaced.

Those who were prayed for had one fifth the number of infections requiring antibiotics as the control group. They were also three times less likely to develop pulmonary edema (a build up of fluid in the lungs due to heart failure). Twelve members of the control group required endotracheal intubation (the placement of a tube in the wind pipe for connection to a breathing machine), while none of the prayed-for group needed the procedure. Despite the fact that these findings have been under sharp attack for failure to control all possible variables (an impossibility when dealing with human subjects), Byrd's research did serve to open the eyes of many skeptical physicians.

To further our understanding, Larry Dossey, MD, former co-chairman of the National Institutes of Health Office of Alternative Medicine wrote the book, Healing Words, The Power of Prayer in the Practice of Medicine. In addition to providing intriguing perspectives for integrating prayer in medical practice, Dr. Dossey carefully reviewed 131 controlled research investigations that were disclosed in 1990 from a survey by David J. Benor, MD in the Journal, Complementary Medical Research. His findings focused on the concept of healing and defined it as the "intentional influence of one or more people upon another living system without using known physical means of intervention." Of 131 experiments cited, 77 showed statistically significant results for subjects ranging from single cell organisms to human beings.

While there is a foundation of convincing evidence to suggest the potential value of integrating spirituality into healthcare, some might argue that prayer should still remain separate from the practice of medicine. For others, healing is considered a divine intervention that is clearly set above mundane practice.

Yet, to support my contention, a quote from John 14:12 serves as a powerful call to action for all of us. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father." I personally consider our active participation along with God in the healing process as the ultimate prescription for health.

The separation of mind, body and spirit was not always the case in the history of medicine. It was the Cartesian paradigm that eventually served to distance science from the supportive approaches for healing—the wisdom of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to sculpt medicine in the future as an art and a science that combines the best that research has to offer with the power of spiritual practice and belief.

Ultimately, it is up to us to promote "whole person" medicine. Why not simply take the lead and ask your doctor to pray with you, if you are so inclined? It just might help the both of you more than you'd ever imagine.

In closing, I'd like to share some words of wisdom that were imparted to me last fall at an awards ceremony held in San Francisco. During the dinner reception, a stately, gray-haired gentleman shook my hand, and thanked me for comments concerning whole person care that I delivered in an acceptance speech to the American Medical Association. He then proceeded to tell me about an important research project conducted at Dartmouth Medical Center. The study was actually quite simple. Over the course of a year, patients in a coronary care unit were asked one straight-forward question. They were surveyed to rate their belief or disbelief in God on a numerical scale.

With a gleam in his eye, Dr. C. Everett Koop, former Surgeon General of the United States proudly announced that the patients who indicated the strongest belief in the Almighty had the fewest heart attacks ... thank God—Mind over Matter!

copyright 1998,1999 Barry Bittman, MD all rights reserved
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