Praying for Wellness

A couple of weeks ago Caity, Tanenbaum’s Program and Communications Associate, asked us to consider when using prayer in public settings is OK. As she noted in her post, while some may find prayer helpful, others feel uncomfortable or insulted if made to observe another’s religious practice.

In the face of serious illness, patients and their family members often turn to prayer and sometimes ask their doctors to take part in the reflection.  A new study published in the December issue of Southern Medical Journal found that doctors handle prayer requests in one of four ways, ranging along a spectrum from active participation to offering suggestions for alternative accommodations, such as a referral to a spiritual leader.  It seems that prayer requests are more likely to be made by patients and their families dealing with real health crises – the 30 pediatricians and pediatric oncologists surveyed reported that nearly all of these requests were made by those caring for the well-being of a seriously ill or dying child.

While the study’s sample size is too small to generalize to the larger physician population, and was concentrated in pediatrics, it is interesting to see how doctors really are on their own when it comes to prayer requests.  Few hospitals, if any, have policies around praying with patients, so doctors handle these requests on a case by case basis, and their response varies depending on their own personal view and comfort level.

While issues of religious and spiritual accommodation are more common in end-of-life situations, other researchers focus on whether prayer may have positive effects on a patient’s health. A study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found that, of a group of patients facing life-threatening illness, those who felt that their spiritual needs were met by their medical team reported not only a better quality of life, but were three times as likely to receive greater hospice care than those who didn’t.

And as Caity reported last month, St. Anthony Hospital in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma has taken the power of prayer viral. The hospital has created a “community of prayer”, with a new Web site called, in order to raise awareness about its healing capacity.   While this is an intriguing idea, it is important for providers to ensure that those patients interested in intercessory prayer have access to it, while those who are not, can comfortably opt out.

Whatever your personal beliefs, countless studies and anecdotes point to the importance of making a place for religion and spirituality in health care settings. It is our mission to do so. As Tracy Balboni, MD, MPH, of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, said in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, “there needs to be more training of clinicians from medical school and beyond, and that includes physicians, nurses, social workers, and all those involved in caring for patients”. We can’t agree with you more, Tracy!