Medics get a dose of faith

November 5, 1999

United States medical schools are expanding their courses on spirituality, including faith healing, writes Jon Marcus.

Administrators say the move comes as more patients - and medical students - search for broader, non-scientific answers to basic questions about their lives, a trend accelerated by the approach of the millennium.

There is an idea that the growing enrolment of women, who are less sceptical about intuition and religion, has also played a part.

The offer of spirituality courses at Harvard and other medical schools has been encouraged by grants administered by the National Institute for Healthcare Research and by studies linking better health to spiritual practices.

"The evidence has built to a point where it is at least acceptable to consider this," said Herbert Benson, a professor at Harvard Medical School and president of the Mind-Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel-Deaconess Medical Center. "One can see the effects of belief in terms that are measurable, reproducible, predictable, and that allow belief and spirituality to come into science."

Harvard has expanded an elective course on spirituality open to all its MD candidates and has required that all psychiatric students take the ten-week class, which is aimed at showing how to at least raise the topic of spirituality and use it to help patients.

Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California has added a course for psychiatric residents-in-training about religious healing beliefs. Aspiring psychiatrists at California Pacific Medical Center will study spiritual approaches to curing addiction.

Accredited therapists are being encouraged to enrol in the Pittsburgh Pastoral Institute, which provides training in both behavioural sciences and theology.

Dr Benson concedes that practising doctors still scoff at adding spirituality to medicine. "There's been a distinct separation for decades, if not longer, between science and spirituality," he said. "We get ever more reductionistic, first from the physiologic, then to the cellular, then to the molecular. It's hard to be reductionistic about measuring spirituality."

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