December 2, 2006
When doctors get religion
Richard Sloan, author of Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine and one of the good guys in the war against religion in science, has an interesting op-ed in today’s Los Angeles Times:
A concerted effort is underway to make religious practices part of clinical medicine. About two-thirds of U.S. medical schools now offer some form of training on the role of religion and spirituality in medicine, according to Dr. Harold Koenig of Duke University.
With support from the National Institutes of Health, researchers are now studying the effect of third-party prayer on cancer patients. Research on the connection between religious activity and cardiac health was published in the Lancet, one of the top peer-reviewed medical journals. The John Templeton Foundation, whose annual prize on spiritual discoveries exceeds the amount of the Nobel Prize in medicine, has funded dozens of medical researchers, some at top-tier institutions, who claim an association between religious devotion and better health.
Some prominent physicians are calling for the wall of separation between religion and medicine to be torn down. They declare that the future of medicine is prayer and Prozac, and they recommend that doctors take a “spiritual history” during a patient’s initial visit and annually thereafter. Walter Larimore, an award-winning physician, for instance, has declared that excluding God from a consultation should be grounds for malpractice.
But before organized medicine decides that religion has any value in physical healing, several things ought to be considered. First, the scientific evidence supposedly linking religious practices with better health is shockingly weak — so bad, in fact, that if we were discussing drugs, the Food and Drug Administration would have to find them unsafe and ineffective. Most research studies that claim to show how religious involvement is associated with better health fail to rule out other factors that might account for the relationship.
…[R]eligious practices are likely to be markers of some other factor — for example, social support from family, friends or the community or, perhaps, the absence of behavioral risk factors — that may lower the risk of disease.
Studies that show, for example, the health benefits of attending worship services or reading the Bible often make this mistake. A study of residents of Washington County, Md. — the largest study ever to demonstrate that church attendance was associated with reduced mortality — made precisely this error; it failed to recognize that attendance itself was a marker for good health.
The effort to link health and religion has other problems as well. For one thing, doctors already have so little time in their interactions with patients that they routinely fail to follow established guidelines for preventive care and for treat-
ment of chronic disease. If, in the future, physicians spend their limited time with patients engaging in spiritual inquiries, they will have even less time to address depression, smoking cessation, weight control or diabetes self-care — factors that are demonstrably related to disease and an increased risk of mortality.
More problematic still is the actual effect on patients when physicians abuse the privileged authority inherent in the role of the doctor by manipulating the religious sentiments of frightened and vulnerable patients. Physicians risk transgressing other ethical boundaries when they tell their patients that religious practices can improve their health. Asserting that prayer can promote recovery can lead patients who fare poorly to question their spiritual devotion and to experience guilt and remorse over their supposed religious failures.
More to the point, the assertion is demonstrably false. An extensive study of 1,800 heart-bypass-surgery patients, published last March, found that prayer had no effect on their recovery—in fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.
Ironically, that study was funded by the Templeton Foundation.
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