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But overall, researchers say the field of spirituality and health — spanning numerous academic disciplines, including public health, nursing, social work, sociology, psychology, and medicine — is improving as investigators dig deeper and try to ferret out causal relationships and eliminate other factors that may account for improved health outcomes.

A chaplain prays with a nurse in a scene from “Your Health: A Sacred Matter” (photo credit: Auteur Productions).

One thing many researchers agree on: Studies analyzing whether prayer can heal illness have been shown to be methodologically, ethically and theologically flawed. Besides the question of whether prayer is an appropriate subject for scientific study and the fact that it’s impossible to quantify the amount of prayer offered at a set time, there was a host of ethical considerations. (Is it ethical not to pray for someone, and does God heal some but not others?)

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The best of these studies showed that prayers offered by strangers — sometimes called intercessory prayer — had no effect on the recovery of people undergoing surgery.

Religious attendance, however, is a subject to which researchers keep returning. The question remains: What practical implications can be gleaned from these studies?

Many researchers agree that even if religious attendance does promote better health, it’s not appropriate for a physician to tell patients to go to church if they want to live longer — just as it wouldn’t be appropriate to tell patients they should get married because research shows married couples live longer.

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But that doesn’t mean doctors shouldn’t inquire about patients’ spiritual needs.

“Physicians should know everything that has the potential to impact a patient’s well-being, whether it’s diet, social engagement, gun ownership, or texting while driving,” said Richard Sloan, a biomedical researcher at Columbia University Medical Center. “My objection is when physicians try to persuade patients to engage in religious practices that are potentially coercive.”

“Name a human institution that gives you a sense of community, of hope — and teaches you how to meditate.”

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For example, he said, it would unethical for a doctor to try to convert patients to a particular faith or to initiate prayer with a patient. Likewise, it’s not clear that going to church to improve the odds of survival is a good idea.

“I wouldn’t want a congregation of people there for health benefits,” said Daniel Sulmasy, a general internist and ethicist at Georgetown University and a former Franciscan friar. “In fact, we don’t know if people did it for that reason, rather than intrinsic reasons, that there would be a correlation.”

But some studies at the intersection of religion and health might help clinicians do a better job of caring for patients.

For example, studies have shown that chaplain visits in hospital settings are associated with better health outcomes. This stands to reason, say researchers; when patients’ spiritual needs are met, they are more satisfied with their overall care. Another study suggested patients that take advantage of chaplain visits are more peaceful and feel more in control of their health.

More such research examining the efficacy of chaplaincy interventions is needed, said Christina Puchalski, professor of medicine and director of the George Washington University’s Institute for Spirituality and Health. “What can we do for the person that’s suffering?” Puchalski asked. “What are we doing so they aren’t alone? I try to accompany people in their suffering. That’s where we can all come together.”

And while researchers work to tease out the mediating factors in religious services that may hold the secret ingredient to health, there’s little question that religious groups have a lot going for them.

“Name a human institution that gives you a sense of community, hope, teaches you how to meditate, has all these kinds of disciplines associated with it,” said Sulmasy. “If it’s not a religion, it’s going to be close to a religion.”

This article originally appeared in Religion News Service.[lz_pagination]