When Toni Robertson checked into the UCLA Medical Center here in January, doctors told her she had two months to live. The dire prognosis convinced her it was time to try a treatment she once considered radical: prayer.
So began the nightly prayer vigils, in which Ms. Robinson asked friends of many faiths from around the country to support her in their prayers. Each day, visitors to her hospital room hugged her, held her hands, sang, meditated, and used visualization techniques.
"I had heard testimonies of others who had been cured of disease through prayer, and I believed that it would help me as well," she says.
Stories like Robertson's have been repeated so often across the country that medical doctors, hospitals, and medical schools are increasingly beginning to study and provide alternative treatments - from prayer and meditation to acupuncture, homeopathy, nutrition, and massage.
Robinson was raised Presbyterian, then examined other denominations before pursuing her own spiritual path.
"I wanted a course of treatment that viewed me as a whole person, with mind, spirit, and soul," says the mid-career film consultant. She credits both the medical treatment and the prayer for recent improvements in her condition.
Doctors who are treating Robinson have supported her choices. Not only did they accept her desires, but they also provided her with an on-site chaplain in a nascent program known as Clinical Pastoral Education.
"Patients want spirituality included in their treatments," says psychiatrist David Larson, author of the teaching workbook "The Forgotten Factor," which discusses his research on the relationship between religion and health.
Behind his work is a host of recent nationwide polls by Time, CNN, Gallup, and others that spotlight the growing trend: Sixty percent of Americans would like to discuss spirituality with their doctors, and 40 percent would like their doctors to pray with them.
The public looks elsewhere
Physicians also report that more patients are seeking the aid of priests, rabbis, ministers, or faith healers to help deal with their medical conditions. The American Academy of Family Physicians last October found that 91 percent of physicians sought the aid of such spiritual leaders.
One in 3 Americans now turns to alternative healers, say pollsters. A Gallup survey has reported that visits to holistic healers now outnumber visits to conventional medical doctors.
"Doctors and psychotherapists have not traditionally been taught to deal with religious issues or even bring them up in treatment," Dr. Larson notes, "but that is beginning to change."
Among the evidence:
*Research by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a San Francisco organization for research in mind-body health, shows that 50 of America's 135 medical schools are supplementing anatomy and biochemistry classes with subjects that include acupuncture, prayer or meditation, nutrition, massage, and homeopathy.
*The number of medical schools applying for grants to the three-year-old Faith and Medicine Program at the Georgetown University School of Medicine has tripled since 1994. Winning applicants get $10,000 to develop curricula that examine spirituality as a variable in health. Eleven schools are currently using the grant money to implement such programs.
*Last summer, a panel convened by the Office of Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health recommended that all medical and nursing students be exposed to alternative-healing theories and techniques.
*Dr. Larson founded the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Maryland in 1994 to provide health professionals with information about spiritual approaches to healing. The organization maintains that faith should be taken into account as a crucial element in healing.
Growing attendance in a Harvard Medical School course called "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine" is another yardstick healthcare professionals are using to gauge their colleagues' interest in the subject.
Organizers deemed the three-day course, first held in 1995 in Cambridge, Mass., to be so successful that a second was offered in December 1996 and a third this past weekend in Los Angeles.
'Prayer is good for you'
"This course is a reaffirmation of what religionists have said for millennia ... that prayer is good for you," said Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and president of Harvard's Mind/Body Medical Institute.
The course offers participants three days of talks by leading thinkers on healing in Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish, African, Christian, and other traditions, including Christian Science treatment.
In addition, studies by researchers in several medical disciplines offered evidence that prayer, meditation, and other spiritual techniques have had salutary effects on patients diagnosed with various maladies. Moreover, the sheer volume of research - seen in the stacks of reports offered to attendees - underscored the seriousness with which the medical community is viewing alternative treatments.
"There are many, many physicians who would like to incorporate these notions of spiritual efficacy into their treatments," says Dale Matthews, associate professor of Medicine at Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington. "Now we know that will just be a matter of time."
Spotty demand for change
Despite current evidence, say other observers, the move by physicians to embrace spirituality won't happen overnight.
Some medical-school faculty members remain skeptical of the benefits of alternative treatments. Others say the demand by medical students for such courses is not yet that high.
"At this time we have made no plans to include alternative [healing] systems as part of our required curriculum," says Robert M. Carey, dean of the medical school at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. The university offers informal classes in massage and meditation as electives for seniors, but last year only seven students attended.
"However, we do recognize the widespread interest in such systems by the public," he says, "and we do feel that physicians should be conversant with them."
A Different Demand on Doctors
A growing number of Americans want physicians to pay heed to their spiritual needs - and even to incorporate prayer into treatment for the sick. More people are also turning to alternative forms of treatment, a number of polls show.
*Sixty percent of Americans would like to discuss spirituality with their doctors.
*Forty percent would like their doctors to pray with them.
* Ninety-one percent of doctors surveyed by the American Academy of Family Physicians say they seek the aid of patients' spiritual leaders, such as priests, rabbis, ministers, or faith healers.
*One in 3 Americans now turns to alternative healers.
*Visits to holistic healers outnumber visits to conventional doctors.