A few centuries ago, religious and theological concepts dominated an era when medicine offered little to allay the ravages of plague, cholera and other diseases of mankind. Because medicine at that time was impotent and the therapies offered not only ineffective but often dangerous, traditional religion with its prayers and rituals filled the breach. More or less.

If a child was ill, helpless parents could at least pray and hope for God’s mercy to deliver the child from a high fever or other affliction. Maybe the child got better.

As medicine improved, we developed and understood the germ theory, developed antibiotics, immunizations and other powerful and effective therapies. Religion and its various rituals and trappings seemed obsolete, quaint, even irrelevant.
So why in an era of ever more complex, targeted technologies for not only infectious disease but cardiovascular disease and cancer would we need to add to these modern methods any call for religion and spirituality in the clinical care setting?

First, let me define terms as these two are not necessarily the same, though they overlap. Increasingly, people identify themselves as spiritual but not religious. This generally means though they may be culturally Jewish or raised in a Christian faith tradition, they do not reject them but do not actually practice or attend services regularly. Many folks however do stay active and grow their faith-based practices through regular prayer, communal worship, personal meditation and other faith-based rituals and practices.

When they are ill themselves or have others in their acquaintance suffering from medical problems, they naturally gravitate to prayers of supplication and affirmation of hope to support those that are ill and their families. Except for a few religions that reject the interventions of modern medicine, the vast majority of religious people support the use of medical practices as well as spiritual support.

Medical professionals are not necessarily well trained to address the multiplicity of faiths and belief systems and religious practices of our patients. They span the spectrum from atheists to faith healers, from those who reject blood transfusions to those who can only eat certain foods and on certain days. Some of this is philosophical, going back to Plato who emphasized a precise diagnosis versus Hippocrates who sought to balance the positive and negative lifestyle choices people made to alleviate disease and suffering.

Ultimately, health care providers need to be sensitive to the variety of religious experiences and beliefs of their patients. We need to be respectful of the power these play in their lives and deaths. Being sensitive to such beliefs helps us connect with others’ humanity and also acknowledges the not so hidden fact that modern medicine with all its miracles is not infallibly effective and perhaps some divine intervention might on occasion be helpful. We need all the help we can get.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.