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Rita Watson MPH

Medicine and Spirituality: New Marriage is Centuries Old

Despite tension between medicine and spirituality, healing is the common goal.

The Spirituality and Medicine Movement

The spirituality and medicine movement received a boost from the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in 1976 when the late Norman Cousins wrote about the healing power of laughter in Anatomy of an Illness (As Perceived by the Patient). Diagnosed with a serious spine condition, after checking himself out of the hospital and into a hotel, he found relief. He attributed his healing to laughter while watching his favorite comedies -- Marx Brothers films and episodes of Candid Camera.

Then in 1979, the NEJM published an essay by psychologist Neil Fiore who used visualization therapy to fight cancer of the testes that had metastasized to his lungs. Today spirituality and medicine have homes at many universities and in November at the Institute for Spirituality and Health at the Texas Medical Center, the 22nd Annual Psychotherapy and Faith Conference is taking place.

Does prayer work?

There will be pros and cons in terms of measuring prayer scientifically. However, Dr. Recupero, the first woman to become president and Chief Executive Officer of Butler Hospital in Providence, RI, explained what the marriage of medicine and spirituality means for patients at her facility.


According to Dr. Recupero, "Recognizing that our patients have multiple aspects to their lives beyond their illness is an important part of providing patient-centered care. The spiritual aspect of a person’s life is one of those important aspects. Patients may be very spiritually connected in their daily lives or they may be alienated, but still spiritually yearning. Or they may not believe in the spiritual aspect of life. For the caregiver, connecting with what is important to the patient is paramount.

“In psychiatry, we have had a checkered history with spirituality growing out of concerns about some of the delusions or hallucinations our patients may suffer; many of these experiences are theologically oriented. However, beginning with substance abuse treatment, where spirituality was recognized as relevant and important, spirituality is now one of the most valued interventions among the patients and the staff.

“Our spirituality groups are very important to the patients and while not curative, are certainly relevant to their recovery. We define spirituality broadly so as to be non-denominational. We offer this to groups, it is not required. Nonetheless, when the Chaplain is on vacation, the patients often notice the void.”

The Healing Temples of Asclepius

While today some still bristle at the holistic healing concept, the forerunners of today's hospitals -- seen in the healing temples of Ascelepius -- have been written about by the National Institute of Medicine. The caduceus, which we recognize as the symbol of medicine, was adapted from the single snake on the staff of Ascelpius and the second snake symbolizes the messenger god. Greek Medicine - Asclepius

In a small valley in the Peloponnesus . . . The vast site, with its temples and hospital buildings devoted to its healing gods, provides valuable insight into the healing cults of Greek and Roman times. Sanctuary of Asklepios at Epidaurus - UNESCO World Heritage Centre

Gratitude studies

The Duke University Center and many others have received funding from the John Templeton Foundation, which has also supported the research on gratitude by Robert Emmons, Ph.D. 4 Steps to Gratitude in Happy Times or Sad Ones as well as the work of Dr. Jeffrey Froh. 4 Ways Children Learn Gratitude.

With research funding it seems we are coming full circle in terms of exploring the mind-body connection which had its roots in the 4th century. In the quest for empirical data, we are seeing meditation and prayer interacting with the world of science and find the anecdotal material rich with patient-described "miracles."

Copyright 2013 Rita Watson/ All Rights Reserved


About the Author

Rita Watson, MPH, is an associate fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College, a former columnist for The Providence Journal, and the author of Italian Kisses: Rose-Colored Words and Love from the Old Country.