January 6, 1999

Praying doctors find paying patients
___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___DALLAS--At Renaissance Women's Health Associates in Dallas, Dr. Margaret Christensen concerns herself with both the physical and spiritual health of her patients.
___When new patients visit the obstetrics and gynecology practice, they answer the typical questions about their medical history, insurance coverage and current health. But Christensen also asks an unusual question: "How do you meet your soul or spiritual needs?"
___Most women are "very glad" to answer such a question, she explained. "Most women know what I'm talking about, and for many it doesn't have anything to do with organized religion."
___The doctor attempts to diagnose not the church affiliation of her patients but the health of her patients' souls.
___"We are much larger than our physical bodies," she said. "Our spirit, our soul is integral to what defines us as human beings."
___For a doctor to address only the physical issues of a patient is dangerous, she said, because soul problems often create physical problems. "A lot of the issues I see--especially depression--have to do with women
FAITH & HEALTH are mixing for an increasing number of patients, physicians and pastoral caregivers, including Dallas obstetrician/gynecologist Margaret Christensen (shown above in one of her examining rooms decorated with religious icons) struggle to find deeper faith through times when healing does not come. (Photo by Mark Wingfield)
who are in some soul or spiritual crisis."
___The examination rooms at Renaissance Women's Health Associates display an assortment of religious-themed artwork: plaques with prayers inscribed upon them, religious icons and illustrations. And a copy of the organization's mission statement also is posted in each room. That statement talks about the doctors' desire "to support the whole woman physically, emotionally and spiritually."
___Christensen also prays with her patients--during examinations, during labor and delivery, and before surgery. If a pastor or priest visits the patient, the doctor gladly joins them in prayer.
___Prayer has a definite effect on the health and well-being of patients, Christensen said, an effect increasingly reported in scientific studies published in medical journals.
___These studies have explored the impact of intercessory prayer on coronary patients, the effect of church attendance on overall health, the effect of faith on blood pressure and the life expectancy of churchgoers over non-churchgoers. Most of the time the faithful fare better.
___As news of this mounting case of research spills out, more doctors like Christensen are talking with patients about the power of faith and are praying with or for their patients.
___"There are a lot of us out there who do this. We just don't talk about it," Christensen said.
___One place where doctors talk about such issues in greater depth is the National Institute for Healthcare Research, a non-profit organization that describes its mission as acting as a "catalyst and clearinghouse for research into the relationship between spirituality and health."
___The Washington-based institute has held conferences and published literature about the connection between faith and health, prayer and healing.
___David Larson, president of the institute, explains in a promotional video that he was trained as a physician to believe faith harmed medicine. When he began to question that assumption, he discovered the opposite actually is true. Faith helps medicine, he says.
___Dale Matthews, his colleague at Georgetown University Medical School, adds that "the faith factor has been demonstrated to have value."
___"Religion and faith have an important medical effect," he says, citing a "therapeutic value to faith."
___Doctors who acknowledge a connection between faith and health talk about "energy" and "harmony" and "control."
___A primary question to ask, according to Larson, is "Whoís in control?"
___Under the traditional American model of healthcare, doctors have seen themselves fully in control of the treatment and outcome. But doctors who truly see themselves as healers must acknowledge that they are not fully in control, Christensen said.
___"Thereís a difference between healing and curing," she said. "To heal means to make whole."
___Doctors and patients alike, she said, must realize there are "forces beyond our control."
___While researchers continue to explore the direct links between faith and health, a proper understanding of psychiatry and religion points out one of the fundamental medicinal values of faith, according to Wayne Oates, a Southern Baptist pioneer in pastoral care.
___That fundamental notion is hope, he said.
___"Having had a lot of illness myself, I know that one of your greatest temptations is to lose hope," Oates said. "If you find a patient who has given up, the next thing is they die."
___When patients tap into the reservoir of hope found in faith, they often overcome impossible odds, Oates acknowledged. Like others in the healthcare field, he cited cases of patients who had been given only months to live but lived years longer, apparently because they were bouyed by the medicine of hope.
___Oatesí assessment is shared by Bob Fine, a Dallas internist who chairs the ethics committee at Baylor Medical Center.
___"Anything that leads to a calming effect is almost always good in healthcare," Fine said. "Stress is deadly. Stress kills. Prayer, for many people, has that anti-stress effect. That makes it good medicine for any number of conditions."

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