Mixing Religion and Medicine?

by Academy of Clinical Excellence on November 3, 2009

I recently read the new Mitch Albom book, “Have a Little Faith.” As with his other books, “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “The Five People You Meet in Heaven”, I found myself tearful and introspective at the conclusion. “Have a Little Faith” weaves a story of the author, who is by no means religious, being asked by his childhood rabbi to deliver his eulogy when the rabbi dies. However, the request is made by the rabbi when he is well and in fact, Mitch Albom has a full eight years to truly get to know and understand the rabbi. During this time, he also starts to better understand himself and evaluate his own faith.
After reading the book, I started to think how my long term relationships with patients, some of whom I have known over twenty years, have helped me give hope to patients. I have seen patients use faith to help persevere against amazing obstacles- medical and social. However, I then started to think along the lines of the author, about how faith impacts patients and my own care for patients.
Historically, I think physicians have very carefully avoided the topic of faith. At one extreme, I remember being very shocked (to put it mildly) as an intern, when I saw a second year resident who used to ask his patients if he could pray for them, and he would kneel at the foot of their bed and pray for them. However, I then started to think about how I encourage my patients with substance abuse to attend Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.
These are the steps:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol - that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure
them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
My patients in recovery will always point out that Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program, and not religious. But after reviewing the steps, am I mixing religion with medicine, by encouraging attendance?

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bradweesner January 4, 2012 at 9:05 pm

Dr. Fingerhood, thanks for this post – Just recently I made the mistake of reading to my AA group from my Book of Common Prayer (Episcopal) a section from our liturgy, a section that I was excited to share that we are “heirs through hope” and other phrases of an otherwise what is a very religious prayer. I mumbled over the Christian words, and speeded up over “God”, “Prayer” and words that were not germane to my sharing the main idea with the group. I was quickly reminded that we do not bring religion to AA. Upon reflection about this, I thought that we read the Lord’s prayer at each meeting and that one’s God is whomever/whatever you make that God to be. In my own experience, when you encouraged me to attend AA more frequently, it was clearly for my well being and mental health, and was in no way construed as religious. So many people are turned off by religion, and so often that is not actually what is being presented to them. Surely, it is incumbent upon the other person to speak up if things become “too religious” for them. If someone does not want their doctor so involved, and wanting to know more about them, their lives – then I question how purposeful their medical health desires are. In avoiding the topic of religion, I wonder if some doctors are less sure how to negotiate the conversation rather than real desire to avoid it. I believe anything done with real intention of help cannot really be onerous or offensive. My vote is to include faith and religion. Like a lot of medicine, it may be hard to swallow, but good in the long run.

hakan altan September 15, 2010 at 8:53 am

thank you

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