Bioethics Discussion Blog: Should Physicians Pray with Their Patients?

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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Should Physicians Pray with Their Patients?

My wife, who is a nurse at a local hospital, told me today about a internal medicine physician who is Christian asking his patient, an ill man who is Jewish, whether it would be acceptable to the patient for the doctor to pray for him and his recovery. The patient said it would be OK. My wife was surprised about the idea that a doctor would initiate an offer to the patient to pray rather than the other way around and particularly a patient of a different faith. I told her that I think it is a bit unusual because my understanding from my reading is that it would be the patients who might ask their physicians to join them in prayer. And then comes the moral decision for the physician whether to accept the invitation. What does praying with the patient really imply? And what might it apply if the physician initiates the request? Should more doctors do it as part of making an professional connection with the patient?

In an ethics address delivered to the 169th semi-annual scientific meeting of the Texas Surgical Society in April 2002 in Tyler, TX. by Michael D. Dent, Dmin, Tyler, Tx,the senior pastor of Marvin United Methodist Church and chair of the ethics committee of Trinity Mother Frances Hospital talked about ethical behavior of surgeons and you can find the whole talk recorded on the website of the American College of Surgeons. Here is the portion of the talk which is pertinent to physician offering prayers.



Two different people have asked me the same
question in the past month: “Have you ever heard
of a doctor praying with the patient before surgery?”
The inquirers were surprised that a surgeon
would do such a thing. There are some ethical
issues in that practice of prayer. Is it offered as
an option to the patient? Is it directed at persons
of no faith or a faith different than the physician’s?
Is it a person in power taking advantage of a person
who is vulnerable? Such prayer could be very
appropriate or tremendously inappropriate, depending
on the answers to these types of questions.
Nonetheless, there is something special, sacred,
and spiritual about the process of surgery, something
that is inexplicable—not magical, but certainly
mysterious.
In a chapter with the intriguing title, “The Snake
and the Saints,” Albert R. Jonsen, PhD, writes:
We frequently hear that physicians “play God”
when they make decisions about life and death.
The phrase is supposed to suggest arrogance. Yet
it is a dim echo of the ancient beliefs that in all
healing, God is active. The rabbis of ancient Judaism
justified the use of physicians by proposing
that they healed by the power of God. Ambroise
Paré, the father of modern surgery…adopted the
motto, “I treat, God heals.” In a more secular era,
the flippant phrase “playing God” is about all that
remains of that ancient belief. Yet with it we remind
ourselves of the mystery of medicine.4
Call it an awesome ambiguity or a miraculous
mystery, surgeons represent the source of beneficence,
healing, and hope in the eyes of many they
treat. Patients entrust their lives to finite and fallible
physicians with the expectation to be treated
with care, competence, and compassion.
Here is an example of how surgery is perceived
as a divine act, a sacred task. It was presented by
a member of the church that I pastor. This 72-yearold
man was recently hospitalized for seven
weeks—in and out of the surgical intensive care
unit following several delicate surgeries and two
weeks in rehab. These are the first words he
penned to his pastors on a thank you card: “People
pray for miracles and God sends his doctors to perform
them.”
Hands are holy. Surgery is sacramental. Medicine
is miraculous for many on the receiving end.
They see the good done as a gracious reflection of
Providence.


Any thoughts? ..Maurice.

Graphic: Photo I took of a sign at a local church 6-11-2012.

6 Comments:

At Tuesday, July 19, 2005 6:13:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this only once having dealt with many physicians over the years. The surgeon who was to operate on my father for colon cancer ask my father if he would pray with him before the surgery and the surgeon lead the prayer.THe doctor and my father were members of the same church so it a way it seemed all right. I have to admit I felt a bit uneasy with the praying as it seemed to be,in a sense, out of place.

 
At Tuesday, July 19, 2005 11:39:00 PM, Blogger Maurice Bernstein, M.D. said...

I would wonder, as a patient, if the surgeon before surgery asked to pray with me, whether the surgeon was insecure about his/her surgical competence or if the prognosis for repair and recovery was far worse than presented for the informed patient consent. I think, if the praying is to be of benefit to the patient from a spiritual/psychologic point of view, the surgeon must take a bit of time with the patient explaining the rationale (reason) for the praying and elaborate on the two issues noted above. Certainly, in patients, such as cancer patients, where the long term benefit of the surgery is in doubt but the surgery was done mainly for palliative reasons, patients might find praying with the surgeon beneficial and supportive at this difficult time. ..Maurice.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2005 12:28:00 PM, Anonymous Sastra said...

From what I've seen, most of the discussion on the benefits of incorporating prayer into medicine blithely assumes that the patient is either going to welcome the inclusion of considerations for their "spiritual" well-being or find the subject neutral. But there are dangerous concerns when the patient is not religious -- such requests can be seen as threatening on several levels.

As a nontheist, I might worry:
1.) The doctor is superstitious and likely to rely on pseudoscientific or untestable methods and therapies. Although the assumption is that most people are religious, actually bringing up prayer out of the blue is an unwelcome jolt to those of us who are not.
2.) The doctor will discover I am an atheist and have lowered expectations for my recovery -- after all, if "spirituality" is important to one's well being, then it's only to be expected that those who lack this dimension will do worse (with attendant dangers of self-fulfilling prophesy.)
3.) The doctor will discover I am an atheist and give lowered credibility to my self-reports and feedback (the clearer it is that "we are spiritual beings" the more those who disagree are seen as being in denial, with assumed personality flaws such as crankiness, unreliability, and pessimism.)

Telling someone in authority you do NOT want to pray with them comes across as hostile or cold -- at best. Though it might help bind and comfort those with similar beliefs, spirituality is a powderkeg when it comes to uncovering differences. Mutual respect can suddenly be shattered when someone has to reject kindly meant overtures. If nothing else, it opens a can of worms during a stressful situation.

Talk about being put in an awkward situation. You're now the "non-praying" patient -- and not only stand out from the Good People who do pray, but risk falling afoul of whatever personal religious preconceptions and baggage the doctor may have.

Trust me, nobody wants to be placed in a position where they suspect that their failure to improve could actually reinforce their physician's faith in the value and importance of God.

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2005 2:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

In med school they tell us that something like 70% of healthy Americans, in surveys run by people like Gallup, think that doctors should pray with their patients.

Then you see comments on a post like this, where most everyone who is interested enough to speak up is certain that their doctors should NOT pray with them.

When my grandmother's cardiothoracic surgeon told her he would "pray on it" before doing her CABG, I thought she should get a new surgeon.

And so I am scared to death that a patient might ask me to pray with him, because I have no idea how to handle that. --Matt

 
At Tuesday, July 26, 2005 9:05:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I used to work in a Catholic hospital and one of the surgeons was well known to be a man who prayed and practiced his faith. More than once I'd see him in the holding area praying with a patient and the family before surgery. I don't know if the patient had instituted the request or not, but every patient that I saw thanked the surgeon and seemed more at peace. I'm sure it's not for everyone, but for some it seems to provide more peace than pharmacology did.

 
At Wednesday, July 27, 2005 6:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent a great deal of my life living in Birmingham, Alabama. At one of the top hospitals, at the age of 21, I had to have emergency surgery to remove a grapefruit-sized ovarian cyst. I was terrified. I didn't know if I would lose my ovary, and I was afraid my future fertility would be impacted.

As I was wheeled into the OR, I was in tears and asked the surgeon to, "Please not take my ovary." He replied, "Let's pray," and he grabbed my hand.

I'm an atheist. I didn't have the courage at the time to tell him I didn't want him praying for me, or to assume I wanted prayer. It disturbed me greatly. I wish he had spent the time explaining the odds of losing my ovary, or something like that.

It's one of the experiences that made me choose medicine as a career. I don't want someone else having to go through that experience.

 

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