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How Physicians Handle Requests for Prayer


A new study conducted among pediatricians and pediatric oncologists shows that families and patients, not physicians, most often raise the issue of prayer in situations involving serious illness. This report, which appears in the Southern Medical Journal, is a first in showing how physicians respond to personal requests for prayer.

Much has been written about the relevance or possible impact of prayer on healing and on whether doctors and patients believe religion has a place in medicine. Indeed, Larry Dossey, MD, boarded in internal medicine and author of nearly a dozen books, including Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine and Prayer is Good Medicine, has written extensively on the subject and been responsible for significantly increasing the number of medical schools that offer courses in religious practice and prayer in health.

In this new study, sociologists from Brandeis and Rice universities set out to discover when and how the topic of prayer and related issues come up in practice and how physicians respond. They conducted in-depth interviews with 30 academic pediatricians and pediatric oncologists at 13 academic medical centers in the United States. They learned that while prayer is not discussed regularly with patients and families, it is raised more often for pediatric oncologists than for pediatricians. More specifically, family members most often introduce the topic of prayer when a child is seriously ill or dying.

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Overall, physicians respond to requests for prayer in one of four ways. In most cases, they respectfully accommodate the request but do not actively participate, meaning they might listen to the prayer in a respectful way or bow their head during the prayer. Some physicians said they join in prayers and/or have participated in religious rituals.

In some cases, physicians reframe the requests for prayer in a way they think is more appropriate. One pediatric oncologist is quoted as saying “I try not to bring myself into it, because I don’t want this to be about me, and I don’t want the family to think I have more power to cure their child than I actually have.” Finally, some physicians refer their families and patients to the hospital chaplain, the family’s religious leader, or other relevant resources.

Wendy Cadge, a socialist at Brandeis University and one of the study’s authors, notes that the study showed that physicians want to be respectful of patients’ and families’ request for prayers, even if they choose not to participate or share the family’s religious or spiritual beliefs. She also added that their findings suggest that medical education could be improved if budding physicians were offered courses that address prayer.

Larry Dossey, MD website
Southern Medical Journal 2009 Dec; 102(12): 1218-21