Religion in Medical Practices

by Sana Azam

In recent years there has been an increasing interest in the role of religion in medical practices. Many people may find these two worlds of thought to be inherently exclusive. Yet it is fairly recent in human history that the practice of healing was considered to be more scientific than spiritual.

In a multitude of cultures around the world, there exists a historical link between the clerical and the healing roles of the community. Various kinds of shamanism have been seen to play large roles in the healing process of the not so distant past. And the ideology is in no way dead. To this day, spiritual healers are consulted all over the world, from yoga instructors at the gym to herbalists in the local marketplace, for their experience and knowledge in the art of healing.

Reverend Jim Burklo, the Associate Dean of Religious Life, has been working toward developing a stronger connection between the medical students at the Keck School of Medicine and this faith-based way of thinking through his role as Religion Liaison to the USC Health Sciences Campus (HSC).

“We have a speaker series [at HSC] called the Soul of Medicine,” said Burklo when asked about what programs he is involved in the medical school. He has also taught many courses that instruct students on how to better incorporate an understanding, if not acceptance, of the place religion has in the healing process.

Burklo is also part of a committee that will develop the USC Institute for Integrative Health.

“[The Institute] is all about putting western medicine together with alternative therapies, and then doing research into the efficacy of alternative treatments,” said Burklo.

Evidence through scientific research has also shown that personal association with faith in a communal setting has had improved health effects in the general lifestyle for members of the community.

“When it comes to prayer [based] healing, the evidence…is inconclusive,” said Burklo. “What is conclusive is religious participation. Being a part of a faith community is correlated with better health outcomes, particularly longevity. Having that spiritual support is healthy.”

Still, this raises the question of whether a physician must be of the same faith as their patient to develop a better relationship with them. But in a world with such diverse beliefs and levels of faith within religions themselves, there is little that can be contributed to the understanding of a person simply based on a similar religious title. The subjectivity of faith is strength and a hindrance, but plays a significant role in the understanding of individual beliefs nonetheless.

“A lot of medical students aren’t really happy about taking the professionalism courses, because it gets in the way of studying the science,” said Burklo. “But these are humans you are dealing with. You have to understand them.”

The largest difference between medical practices of today and those of the shamans of old, is that the spiritual healers of the past focused not only on helping the people get better by curing their diseases, but also healing their souls. Today, distinguishing between curing and healing is one of the biggest hurdles that medical students and practicing physicians find themselves attempting to jump over in their efforts to treat their patients better than what has been the norm for many decades.

In the long run it is not about having physicians take the position of religious counselors, but rather, having the physicians become increasingly aware of the differences in points of view and beliefs, and the implications this has on their relationship with their patients. Developing this understanding will create a more stable ground on which to pave the way toward better physician-patient relationship as well as better medical practice.

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