Should Physicians Pray with Their Patients?
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
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
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
Any thoughts? ..Maurice.
Graphic: Photo I took of a sign at a local church 6-11-2012.