When asked to pray, what do doctors say?


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Families often turn to prayer when a loved one is in the hospital. But what happens when they ask their doctor to take part?

A new study reveals how physicians deal with a request for prayer by patients and their families in clinical settings. The 30 doctors surveyed by researchers from Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., and Rice University in Houston were pediatricians or pediatric oncologists chosen from 13 highly ranked hospitals.


In nearly all cases, the patients or their families brought up the idea of prayer, and it was most often related to a child who was seriously ill or dying. And while every physicians wanted to be respectful of the families, they handled prayer requests differently. Researchers boiled those variations down into four scenarios.

In the first, doctors actively took part in the prayer. Some, when asked, attended religious ceremonies such as baptisms. Said one, ‘...I had the parents ask me to be there for the baptism given to the baby because the baby was dying...I stay at the bedside myself because, I felt like, you know they’re part of my family, so...I love to share that.’

In the second, physicians were present for the prayers but did not take part, instead standing with the families and perhaps showing respect by bowing their heads. Some even spoke at funerals. Said one pediatric oncologist, ‘I participate [in prayers]. I mean in the sense that I generaly sit quietly and listen to their prayer in what I hope is a respectful manner.’

One, when asked to lead a prayer, explained his reaction: ‘If somebody wishes me to lead a prayer, I say, ‘I don’t think that’s appropriate or I would prefer not to but I’ll be happy to be here with you.’ ‘ The physician went on to say he feels it is ‘manifestly unfair of patients to demand something so personal of their physicians.’

In the third scenario, doctors tweaked prayer requests to make them more realistic and appropriate. ‘I try not to bring myself into it,’ said one physician, ‘because I don’t want this to be about me, and I don’t want them [the family] to think that I have more...power to cure their child than I actually have.’

In the fourth, physicians referred patients and family members to religious or spiritual leaders or to the hospital chaplain. One doctor explained that while she told families she would keep them in her prayers, she would also suggest they also talk to a chaplain. ‘If I don’t feel comfortable,’ she said, ‘if I feel that their religion is something that I have a hard time understanding, I often ask if they would like to have some spiritual guidance.’


The study appears in the December issue of Southern Medical Journal.

-Jeannine Stein