Research Starts to Bridge Gap Between Prayer and Medicine

It is still a nascent movement.

Only 5 percent of doctors now say they should pray with their patients. But national surveys consistently show nearly 80 percent of patients want their physician to consider their spiritual needs.

"Medical students need to be taught empathy," says Martin Kantrowitz of the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. While no one is advocating that doctors take over as ministers or rabbis, Dr. Kantrowitz says doctors must address the "spiritual dimension" - the real "unseen order" of life.

The growing dialogue between the disciplines of faith and medicine, was probed this past weekend at the Religion Newswriters Association's annual meeting here. Increasingly, medical institutions are exploring the role of prayer in healing. Three years ago, only three US medical schools in offered courses on spirituality and health. Today, there are 30.

Larry Dossey, author of several books on the subject, says that he, like most doctors, has witnessed "miracle cures." But the quality of research on the subject varies greatly. Skeptics, he says, tend to point to the weakest studies. Good scientific method, he says however, requires the medical community to look at the best work to "see what it shows us." Dr. Dossey adds that "I'm not trying to hold prayer hostage to science. I don't think prayer needs science to validate it."

Research does link religious devotion to better health and reduced risk of addiction.

Gordon B. Hinkley, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints cites a UCLA study showing the Mormon abstinence from alcohol, tobacco, and caffeine contributes to a longer lifespan.

The discussion between the two camps, religion and medicine, is building important bridges, says Virginia Harris, chairman of the Christian Science Board of Directors. But it's a discussion that can be traced to the healing ministry of Jesus, she says. "This is not a new story. But it is one of the most underreported stories of our time.... This is a grass-roots phenomenon - heart upon heart."

As it expands, she hopes the discussion of prayer and spirituality will go beyond medical schools to the arena of general education.

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