A friend of mine who has been living with cancer for much of the last fifteen years sent me an online article published by CNN article recently titled, "How to Talk to Your Doctor About God". A new study in Archives in Surgery finds that many Americans have a faith that leads them to pray for a sick person, and believe that God can heal, even when physicians involved in the patient's care believe there is no hope.
In the study, 57 percent of randomly surveyed adults said God's intervention could save a deathly ill family member even if physicians said treatment would be futile.
Of course, Catholic Christians, among others, believe in miracles, and the charisms of Intercessory Prayer and Healing do bring about healing in the lives of the sick that have no natural explanation. Unfortunately, we sometimes don't pray with the expectation that God might actually do something, even if we might have an "intuition" that the person is not meant to die.
However, just under 20 percent of doctors and other medical workers said God could reverse a helpless outcome.
The study was published last month ... is one of many to show a "faith gap" between doctors and patients. "Patients are scared to death to talk to their doctors about this issue," said Dr. Harold Koenig, co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University.
Given this gap, how can you discuss God with your physician? We asked advice from Koenig and two other physicians who study faith and medicine.
1. It's OK to ask for a doctor who also has strong religious convictions
Koenig suggests this approach when talking to a physician: "I would say: 'My religious beliefs are very important to me and influence my medical decisions and the way I cope with illness, and I want a doctor who has those same convictions. If you don't come from that perspective, do you know a doctor you can refer me to?' "
If you're a Christian, you might find a like-minded doctor through the ZIP code search at the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.
2. Don't be surprised if you find No. 1 difficult to do
"Religion is the last taboo in medicine," said Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, an internist, a Franciscan friar and director of ethics at St. Vincent's Hospital and New York Medical College in New York. "Doctors and patients talk about intimate details like sexual practices and drug use but still have this great reluctance to talk about religion."
Sulmasy suggests not asking directly about the doctor's own religious beliefs but instead focusing on your own religious needs.
3. It's OK to ask your doctor to pray with you
According to a 2006 study by the University of Chicago, 53 percent of doctors surveyed said it was appropriate to pray with patients when asked.This can work even when doctor and patient don't share the same faith. For example, Koenig, who's Christian, has prayed with Jewish patients. "In most cases, a general prayer asking for God's comfort, support and healing will be sufficient," he said.
4. Be specific about your religious needs
"If I'm a Muslim and I come to the point of dying, the hospital might need to relax the visiting rules, because it's important to have as many people as possible with me as I recite the Quran," Sulmasy said.
"If I'm a Buddhist, it may be important to me to hear chant as I'm dying," he added. "If I'm a Catholic, I may want to receive the Sacrament of the Sick."
5. If you believe in miracles, say so
"Get that out in the open," advised Dr. Robert Fine, an internist and head of clinical ethics and palliative care at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas.
Confusion may ensue if you don't, he explains. For example, sometimes doctors think families are against removing life support at the end of life because they don't understand the medical facts, when they do understand but are waiting for a miracle.
"Once we know that, we can have a discussion about faith," Fine said.
I would suspect that Catholics, with our "don't ask, don't tell" approach to issues regarding faith, including prayer, would be among the least likely to ask for a physician to pray with them. I would include myself in that category up to a few years ago.
In fact, I had a situation back in 1991 related to this issue. I was in three hospitals in South Africa with an undiagnosed malady that caused intense abdominal pain for many hours a day. In the third hospital - a Catholic one - I was told by my nurse that I was being treated by a physician who prayed an hour a day before the Blessed Sacrament for his patients. He was Anglican. I was not healed spontaneously, but he did figure out what was wrong, and treated me accordingly.
My friend (I'll call her Ethel, just to peeve her) has had a lot of experience talking to doctors, and recently has had some interesting experiences. She has, in the last few weeks or months, had 45 radiation treatments, and her radiology oncologist has asked her to come by his office regularly even if she doesn't continue the therapy. "I need you," he's said to her.
Which raises an interesting question. Are physicians less likely to "give up" on patients they bond with than those with whom they don't bond, or whose personality they dislike? Physicians are only human, after all. Perhaps in addition to being able to talk to our physician about God, it might also help to find a physician with whom we can bond in some way - we might get more dogged healthcare!