Art Dyer has been consoling hospital patients and their relatives for more than nine years.
A chaplain at University Hospital, he is specially trained to attend to the spiritual needs of the sick and terminally ill, and he is a strong believer in the power of faith to influence healing.
Dyer is also part of a committee that oversees an elective course about faith and healing at MU’s School of Medicine. The course, called Spirituality and Medicine, requires students to spend time with hospital chaplains and physicians who address spiritual matters in their practice.
Dyer said that, after disappearing from the bedside manner of most physicians, faith is making a comeback in medicine. “I would just say that the pendulum continues to swing as far as the medical world in terms of spiritual care,” he said.
Clay Anderson, associate professor of clinical medicine and director of the Missouri Palliative Care Program, said first-year medical students at MU have several opportunities to hear lectures on spirituality and medicine, and said he touches on the topic in his lectures on palliative and end-of-life care.
More and more medical schools are offering their students the same opportunities. Thirteen years ago, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 17 of the 126 accredited medical schools in the United States offered courses on spirituality in medicine. By 2004, 84 schools were offering classes on the topic.
This shift toward more attention to patients’ spiritual needs could be a reflection of greater understanding about how and why Americans get sick. Dyer said medical professionals are recognizing that patients are more than just their bodies and that attitude, psychological state of mind and spirituality are important to healing.
A 1996 Time magazine article pointed out an increase in chronic illness, such as high blood pressure, backaches, cardiovascular disease, arthritis and depression, which are often a factor of stress and lifestyle.
Anderson, who is a member of the MU Center for Religion, the Public, and the Professions, said the medical profession has become more open to spirituality in health care in the last decade or so “as our society becomes more pluralistic and providers have to be taught how to understand, respect and care for people different than them.”
At the same time, he said, doctors “can express their spirituality more easily now.”
While faith’s true impact on healing is not yet known, there is little question that it can be great comfort to people who are suffering. In 1995, a study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that one of the best predictors of survival among 232 heart-surgery patients was “the degree to which the patients said they drew comfort and strength from religious faith.” Those who did not had a death rate three times higher, the study reported.
The belief that faith can improve patient outcomes, even when it seems medically impossible, is widespread among Americans. A Newsweek poll taken a few years ago found that about 72 percent of Americans believe God can heal a person even when science says otherwise.
Actual research on the subject, however, does not support that belief. Less than a year ago, Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston’s Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School, released findings from a 10-year, $2.4 million study involving more than 1,800 patients that strangers’ prayers had no effect on recovery from heart surgery. Still, since President Bush took office in 2001, the federal government has funded more than $2 million in research on the effects of prayer.
Anderson said religious belief can complicate his job and doesn’t always help patients. “Like a medicine, the right dose for the right person will help the most,” Anderson said. “Too much may be harmful, mainly if it is misplaced or misdirected toward cure or physical healing that really won’t happen.”
Dyer, a former pastor, is regularly faced with such circumstances. He said he recently counseled a patient whose family harbored hope that God would heal the terminally ill man.
“I asked him to ‘continue your belief that God will strengthen you whether you live or not.’”