Does Faith Have a Place in Medical Care?

“When I completed medical school and residency in the Northeast, I rarely thought about the intersection of religion and medicine. But when I moved to the South for a combined fellowship in pediatric hematology-oncology and hospice and palliative medicine, I found myself enrolled in a crash course at the bedside,” explained Dr. Erica Kaye (Finding Faith, Journal of the American Medical Association, February 18, 2020). Dr. Kaye describes in intimate detail her initial awkwardness for requests to pray with patients and their loved ones and how she learned over time that faith can have a place in medical care.

Reading the article catapulted back to the early 2000’s. While serving as a medical humanist at the cancer center in Bennington, I had been asked to administer a form that surveyed the role of a patient’s religious and spiritual beliefs in facing a cancer diagnosis. The medical staff was interested in understanding whether a patient’s faith helped sustain them in times of crisis. In addition, the survey could offer insight into how religious or spiritual beliefs might influence treatment decisions. This could be valuable information when discussing a plan of care with patients and loved ones.

I respectfully approached each patient to explain the purpose of the survey. In one instance a patient stopped me part way through the first question and said, “Are you telling me that if I would have prayed more, I wouldn’t have gotten cancer.” Needless to say, I was stunned and a bit tongue tied. I finally said something along the lines of, “Some people find comfort in their faith while others might look to something else to ease distress during hard times. I don’t think you got cancer because you didn’t pray enough.” He seemed relieved as did I.

The survey was discontinued after a short period of time. I didn’t get an official explanation but I think it was viewed as too intrusive, not an area of inquiry that belonged in the arena of science. Frankly, I didn’t see why asking about the role of one’s faith at times of crisis is not relevant.  Why dismiss what we may not fully understand but could offer comfort to those living with the uncertainties about the future.

“Within the medical community,” Dr. Kaye notes, “I imagine that I am not alone in my struggle to understand the unknowable. I wonder if wrestling to reconcile medicine and faith, though, misses the point. For some, maybe finding faith simply means reconnecting with the feelings that led us into medicine. Perhaps one can think about faith, not in terms of what we know or in whom we trust, but rather as the inevitable product of shared wonder in the face of the indescribable. At the intersections of medicine, science, and spirituality, I find a community of questioners, sharing one another’s confusion and burdens, caring and connecting meaningfully with one another, and answering Yes in affirmation of the search for the sacred.”

What has been your experience with doctors in discussing the role of faith in facing illness?