Should Physicians Pray With Patients?

Batya Swift Yasgur, MA, LMSW

Disclosures

March 21, 2018

In This Article

Does Prayer Belong in the Exam Room?

Although medicine and religion are typically separate domains, patients sometimes want to bring them together.

For many patients, turning to prayer during their recovery or in a situation of a bad prognosis is natural and comforting. However, this may create a conundrum for the treating physician. He or she may disagree with the patient's beliefs or feel that praying is diverting the patient from making necessary lifestyle changes. Or perhaps the physician does not want to have that kind of spiritual/personal interaction with a patient.

Conversely, some physicians are happy enough to participate in prayer and feel, "If it helps the patient's recovery, why not?"

"Patient surveys[1] show that patients welcome prayer from their nurse or physician, especially in the case of greater illness severity," according to Michael Balboni, PhD, ThM, MDiv, instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"The dichotomy between the doctor who takes care of the body and the priest who takes care of the soul doesn't exist for some patients," he says.

Is Joint Prayer Evidence-Based?

Dr Balboni, who is also an instructor of psychosocial oncology and palliative care, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brookline, Massachusetts, has extensively studied the impact of prayer in patients, together with his wife, Tracy Balboni, MD, a radiation oncologist and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

"A significant body of research, including ours,[2,3] has demonstrated that the majority of patients, physicians, and nurses view patient/practitioner prayer as appropriate and spiritually supportive," he says.

Dr Moshe M. Cohn, a pediatric critical care specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center, says that it's not uncommon for patients to ask if the doctor will pray with them. He says he is happy to comply, and feels that it helps build trust and communication with the parents, who are typically struggling with a highly emotional situation.

"In one instance where a patient's son was in a coma, I informed the mother, who is a devout Christian, that her child was in my prayers," he says. "That led to much more open relationship with that parent."

But not everyone agrees that studies and patients' requests should influence a doctor's decision to engage in joint prayer.

"Research[1,2,3] suggesting that some patients welcome shared prayer with the physician doesn't necessarily translate into a requirement for the physician to comply with what the patient wants," says Rob Poole, MB, FRCPsych, professor of social psychiatry at Bangor University, North Wales, who researches the role of prayer in clinical settings.

Saying "no" is a routine component of practicing medicine, Dr Poole points out. "There are many situations where physicians have to say 'no' to a patient's potentially harmful request, such as prescribing opioids that aren't medically warranted," he says. Instead, physicians should encourage other ways for patients to meet their needs for prayer.

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