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Health & Fitness

Spiritual belief has a place in medicine

sick little boy
A sick little boy lying in bed with his mother praying on background. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH  

Q “I eavesdropped on a conservation between two men on Christmas eve and one of them claimed he only attends hospital affiliated with religious groups because he heals faster there. Is there any fact in such a claim?”

On the face of it, you have asked a very simple question whose answer is clearly no. There is no known link between the ownership of a hospital and the rate at which one gets better.

What is clearly known is that there are some conditions that are easy to treat, and others not so easy to treat. If you go to one set of hospital for the treatment of simple conditions and only go to the others when one is very ill, then you can see how some hospitals get a bad name.

Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) is the biggest in East and Central Africa. Many doctors are trained there, and to date, it is known as the centre of excellence in medicine. If one is seriously ill, then one better find his way to the very best care. For this reputation, KNH would be expected to see the most severely ill patients in the county.

Because of this reality, more people might seem to die at KNH than in other “less well known” hospitals. For this reason, it might develop the reputation of a place where people don’t get better quickly. This process is called self-selection.

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Those people you heard on Christmas eve might have been talking about this phenomenon. They might have been saying, if you want comfort, go to such and such a hospital. If you want the best medical care, then there is only one place to go if you want to live!

When the condition is simple and clearly not life threatening they go seeking a low level religiously affiliated hospital. When things are serious and one has waited long and allowed the illness to incubate, he then finds his way to non-religious hospitals.

This, however is the simple answer to a complex question which you have asked. But what does faith have to do with medicine. Indeed, there is evidence that belief in a higher being has some benefit in the healing process.

When we attended medical school in the 70’s, our teachers were categorical that medicine was “scientific” and that God, or other gods had nothing to do with healing. Our teachers made it clear that all we were expected to do is examine the patient, establish the “disease” and proceed to give the correct medicine. Whatever one believed or did not, did not feature in the equation. No conversation was allowed on the possible role of spirituality. Indeed, little or no attention was allowed on what other factors could be in play in the process of getting better.

Today, we know different without saying which faith is better or worse than the other, we know that clinical outcomes are better for those who “believe”.

There are many scientific studies that have shown a link between spirituality and better outcomes of diseases. Greater longevity has also been associated with spirituality.

In the field of mental health, the positive effect is clear and overwhelming. Prayer, faith and religious coping mechanism have all been linked to better mental wellbeing. Interestingly, faith in a higher being has been shown to be the strongest predictor! It is therefore one’s attitude that seems to determine one’s mental health in some cases.

To put it simply, my teachers were wrong. The truth is that religious commitment plays a positive role in health. Science does not tell us which religious practice is better, so at least for now, one is free to choose.

It is possible therefore that the two men on Christmas eve were addressing this topic without knowing it. Perhaps what they were saying is that in a religious hospital (that they know), medicine is practiced holistically and human beings are taken in their totality including their spiritual persuasions, which leads to better outcomes!

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