Praying With Patients: Clinicians Debate

Brandon Cohen


June 20, 2018

Should physicians pray with their patients? A recent article on Medscape posed this question to healthcare professionals. The responses ranged from the spiritual to the practical and the satirical.

Many wholeheartedly supported sharing a prayer with patients. A primary care physician was typical of this camp:

I pray with my patients all the time! I usually say "Ms Jones, do you believe in prayer?" If she says yes, then I'll pray with her. If they say no, I'll say, "No worries. Just thought I'd ask." Not once has a patient said no.

An emergency department physician was also eager to call on a higher power:

I...have asked patients if it was all right with them to give a prayer. Not once during this time have I been refused, and I feel that the patient, their family, and I benefit greatly from doing this. I cannot fathom for me not to ask the Almighty for His help when it is needed.

But colleagues pushed back, specifically against the idea of a doctor initiating the prayer. An infectious disease specialist posed a difficult question:

Do you think they would say something if they did object [to a physician praying]? We are in a position of authority, and patients have enough trouble telling us that they didn't understand our instructions or explanations or that they cannot afford...their medications.

A colleague agreed and added:

I think that it's very selfish and inappropriate when a believer forces me into a situation when refusing to pray seems rude or somehow harmful.

Some made a distinction between initiating the prayer and simply complying with a request from a patient. An orthopedic surgeon was broad-minded:

I would gladly pray with any of my patients regardless of their religion. I take it as an honor that they would ask me to be a part of that and gladly comply.

An anesthesiologist reported much the same experience:

Many patients ask me to pray with them before they undergo anesthesia/surgery. Regardless of the patient's religious beliefs, I participate wholeheartedly and find it mutually beneficial.

But others found it counterproductive to participate in rites they did not believe in.

An emergency department physician wrote, "I would never intentionally lie to a patient. Pretending to believe as they do is a lie."

A surgeon added:

If the doctor's very demeanor does not instill trust throughout, then the doctor is the one who is in urgent need of prayer! We are healers, but definitely not faith healers!

But a radiologist quickly shot back, "A patient asked for help. Give it. Just because you're a healer with faith doesn't make you a faith healer."

One optometrist offered satire: "I usually get out my cup of phalanges bones or my Magic 8-Ball, depending on the age of the person requesting the use of mysticism."

Another doctor was similarly acerbic:

Should physicians do rain dances with patients? Should physicians help perform exorcisms of the evil spirits patients think are causing their afflictions? really no different than any other form of magical thinking and is, ultimately, irrational.

But an excitable emergency medicine specialist found these objections unconvincing: "To be angry about it? Feel forced? That is self-righteous ego. Come on! Chill!"

And an anesthesiologist even questioned the quality of care from atheist practitioners:

Maybe physicians should disclose to their patients whether or not they have any spiritual belief. I, for one, would not care to receive medical care from someone who did not believe in a higher spiritual being.

Some healthcare professionals carefully sorted through the possibilities. One registered nurse considered a number of scenarios:

Assuming [the prayer] is of the generic variety, involving the expression of a desire for respite and so forth, and not...a plea for divine intervention, [such as a] miracle, then it may be feasible. However, you can only accommodate a patient so far. I wouldn't be comfortable invoking the power of Jesus to drive the forces of Satan out of the patient.

And an emergency department physician fretted through the complex calculus of physician prayer with great rigor:

If the patient asks and you feel comfortable: absolutely. If the patient asks and you do not feel comfortable: no. Should the doctor ask: depends. If we [feel] the patient will be receptive: yes. If we read wrong, I don't think any irreparable harm [is] done. If you're a believer who doesn't ask and the patient needed it, you missed an opportunity.

The final word goes to a neurologist who drew a stark line right down the middle of the debate:

I believe that praying with a patient can be a psychologically beneficial...but strictly [only] if the patient has requested the joint prayer. [But] I believe that it may be borderline unethical and potentially detrimental to the doctor/patient relationship for the doctor to suggest a prayer.

The full discussion of this topic is available at Should Physicians Pray With Patients?.

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