Friday News Roundup: Making Sense of the Data

istock_000003001750xsmallThere are multiple studies issued in medical journals every year showing that – depending on which you read –  going to church either reduces or increases mortality, that prayer speeds healing, that prayer has no effect on healing, that people who self-identify as religious are less stressed.  Point being, there are lots of studies from lots of angles and no definitive answers.

Tanenbaum doesn’t advocate or dismiss religion or prayer as avenues to healing – integrating religion in health care is helpful if that’s what you want, and doctors shouldn’t dispense prayer.  But we’re always interested in these studies because if there is any  correlation we want to know about it; docs need to know that there may be another avenue toward healing that will help their particular patient.

Another religion-and-health care  study dropped in JAMA this week that has a lot of people scratching their heads.  The study followed a cohort of 345 people with advanced-stage cancer, and looked to see whether religion impacted their willingness/desire to pursue aggressive life-saving treatments and life-prolonging actions (e.g., being kept on a ventilator or feeding tube).

The findings?  More religious patients were 3 times more likely to seek life-prolonging treatment, even when it drastically reduced their quality of life.  You need a JAMA subscription to view the full study (use the link above to access the abstract), but the findings were all over the news this week:

The hook here is how to understand these findings: many people assume that a very religious person is more likely to be at peace at the end of his or her life and would not opt for life-prolonging treatment especially when the treatment creates a real detriment to the quality of their remaining time.

So what’s going on here?  The most popular theory, and the one tossed around by the study’s directors, is that deeply religious people want to hang on as long as possible in the hopes of a miraculous recovery.  By seeking to prolong life, even if it’s painful, they give God more time to heal them.

Even if we can’t understand the rationale behind the findings, it still points up the importance of understanding how patients’ religious beliefs impact how they access healthcare:

Dr. Andrea Phelps, an internal medicine physician and another of the study’s authors noted that the researchers separately asked patients if they felt their spiritual needs were supported by the medical system.

“To a huge extent, patients said no,” she said. “Probably, they just weren’t being addressed.”

Phelps see that as a missed opportunity.

“I think being open and sensitive to patients with spiritual and religious questions may lead to better understanding between patients and doctors,” she said.

Hopefully, this study will encourage providers to think more about how religion impacts health care and how they can provide the support some patients seek.

How do you interpret these findings?  How far would you push at the end of life?