Jonathan Swanson decided in high school that he wanted to become a doctor. But he doesn’t credit this decision to his own intellectual journey... Doctors, patients and faith: An issue with many dimensions
Med student Jonathan Swanson (right) volunteers at Mercy Health Center, a faith-based free clinic in Athens.

Med student Jonathan Swanson (right) volunteers at Mercy Health Center, a faith-based free clinic in Athens.

Jonathan Swanson decided in high school that he wanted to become a doctor. But he doesn’t credit this decision to his own intellectual journey or to his parents’ steering him toward medicine. He believes the decision was influenced by a higher power.

“I believe that God gives us specific talents and desires that we can use to honor Him,” said Swanson, “I know that this is my calling and I love it.”

Swanson, 25, is currently a second-year student at the Georgia Regents University-University of Georgia Medical Partnership in Athens.

The medical partnership has no written policy discouraging up-and-coming doctors from being open about their religion. But Dr. Barbara Schuster, dean of the partnership campus, said students are taught to be mindful of that openness and not impose their beliefs on anyone else.

“What we try to teach our students is that it is fine to have your own faith, it is not a problem at all,” Schuster said, “but just like in all areas of diversity, we have to honor not only our own diversity but other diversities as well.”

She said students must be especially careful not to impose their beliefs when dealing with patients.

Whereas some nations over the centuries have had official religions or been officially atheist, the U.S. Constitution requires religious freedom for everyone. But questions of where one person’s freedom ends and another’s begins can be tricky. Public and private institutions try to strike a balance.


Seeking guidance in his field

The intellectual demands and pressure of medical school can be overwhelming. To help ease this anxiety, Swanson attends a weekly Bible study that’s hosted by local physicians.

Medical Campus Outreach is a Christian-based organization of current and future health care providers. Swanson said the weekly gatherings with MCO are more personal for him than when he attends church services on Sundays, because he enjoys being able to both challenge his colleagues and learn from them.

“Learning all these different things through the Word with other people who are in the same season of life with you is very important,” Swanson said.

Although medical students don’t officially begin clinical training until their third year, some students seek volunteer opportunities that will expose them to patients during the first and second years. Swanson volunteers at Mercy Health Center, a faith-based free clinic in Athens. He said volunteering at Mercy has allowed him to witness some interplay between religion and medicine.

In addition to providing health care to qualified low-income patients, Mercy offers prayer to each of its patients. Swanson said offering prayer to patients demonstrates concern and an interpersonal connection.

“I would say nine times out of 10, if I told someone that I was going to pray for them, whether they believed the same thing I did or not, they would still really appreciate it,” he said.

While surveys have shown some decline in religious affiliation in the United States, they also show that a large majority of Americans are religious in some way.


A controversial topic

Hundreds of studies have examined the relationship between religion or spirituality and patient health. Harold Koenig, director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, and his colleagues conducted original investigations and reviewed existing research by others in this area. He said this type of research creates conflict.

“There’s a lot of controversy depending on who you talk to, because everyone has their personal biases, and those biases are often very strong,” Koenig said.

After reviewing more than 500 studies, published from 1872 to 2010, Koenig’s team concluded that religion or spirituality has a significant impact on a patient’s health. Koenig said he believes the effects of religion or spirituality on patient health are beneficial at best and harmless at worst.

“I would say that there is a lot more research suggesting that it has beneficial effects than that it has no effect or a negative effect,” Koenig said. “But again you have to look at the research yourself, you have to look at the evidence.”

Some of the data are contradictory.

In one study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers interviewed 177 adult cardiac patients, two weeks before their heart surgery. They found that patients who prayed more before the surgery experienced fewer complications after the surgery.

A larger study, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, surveyed more than 2,000 adult cancer survivors in the U.S. The study found that 69 percent of those surveyed confirmed they had prayed for their own health. However, those who prayed less or not at all reported a better health status more often than those who prayed more.

Koenig said more physicians should consider spirituality when providing care to patients.

“This is something that is being more and more valued and recognized, [because] whether the physician is religious or not . . . doesn’t matter,” he said. “It mainly matters because it’s the patient that’s religious.”

Swanson said he hopes his personal faith will shape how he treats his patients and how they perceive him.

“Being a doctor is a pretty honorable position. People look up to you, and it’s easy for . . . [physicians] to get giant egos because of that,” he said. “If Jesus is still your example for how to be, then it’s humbling to use this as an opportunity to serve others.”


April Bailey is pursuing a master’s degree in health and medical journalism at the University of Georgia. She currently holds a bachelor’s degree in print journalism from Middle Tennessee State University.


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April Bailey

  • Mitch

    January 28, 2014 #1 Author

    In 2006 a large prayer study on cardiac patients was performed by the John Templeton Foundation which showed no improvement in those who didn’t know they were being prayed for and in fact those who did, although not statistically significant, did worse however it can be argued they experienced performance anxiety. Wouldn’t that have been a great time for God to show the power of prayer? In my opinion prayer is a self-help form of meditation to give people hope and lessen anxiety. It has been shown to stimulate the same part of the brain during meditation and talking problems out with others. It also is a way of thanking someone or something for the fortunate things they have in life. It may in fact have greater effect on the individual in large groups. However, because it offers comfort, similar to a child holding a stuffed animal, doesn’t make it true. If prayer truly cured, like the Catholics claim dead Popes have performed and the New Testament describes, then we need to create prayer wings in Hospitals to help the terminally ill and amputees. Personally, I have no problem using Faith to lessen anxiety but we have to understand this gives faith a good name allowing fundamental beliefs to persist and leads to terrorism, homophobia and misogyny among other things. I’m sure my fellow doctors do not treat Leprosy by God’s instructions given in Leviticus 14 but rather use evidence based on peer-review literature.


  • dorvi

    January 28, 2014 #2 Author

    I am a surgeon of 28 years experience and an atheist. I know this young guy will be a great doctor. He shows more than anything a concern for even the spiritual well being of his patients, all this as a product of his certain Christian upbringing. He should nevertheless try to avoid imposing or even suggesting prayer with his patients. As the article suggests, religion or lack of it has no bearing on how a good physician should interact with his patients. The lack of religion does not label or suggests that the physician will be less caring to his patients. He risks finding many patients who will find any suggestions of religious imposition of any level very inappropriate. This young future doctor will probably treat patients of diverse religious back grounds, Jews, Muslims, Sikh, as well as a very rapidly expanding population atheists and agnostics who would be offended if the god of Christianity is suggested as playing a role in their health status. How would the young future doctor would feel if a Muslim doctor surgeon colleague would offer to pray to Allah and his profet Muhammend for avoiding hell before a scheduled surgery of him a christian or his family?

    The author of the article all failed to present the largest, most objective and complete study done on intercessory prayer in medicine.

    This multi-million-dollar, controlled, double-blind study was conducted to test intercessory prayer.

    The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) found two major results:

    1) “Intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications.”

    2) “Patients who knew they were receiving intercessory prayer fared worse.”

    The bottom line is that respecting the religious or lack of religious beliefs of patients is the best policy for health care professionals, as religion is a personal thing.


    • April B.

      January 30, 2014 #3 Author

      Thanks for your comment. I am and was aware of the STEP study when I wrote the article but I was trying to show a comparison between studies that were the most closely related. The STEP study discussed patients being prayed for by others whereas the two studies mentioned in the story specifically studied patients who prayed for themselves.


  • disqus_question_everything

    January 28, 2014 #4 Author

    Religious beliefs or spirituality may have a positive effect on health or at least on dealing with health challenges. However, faith cannot undo damage caused by treatments or tests that are shown to be harmful. I find it ironic that Catholic doctrine is against birth control yet the high rate of unnecessary removal of female organs (hysterectomy and ovary removal) are just as rampant in Catholic hospitals as in non-religious hospitals. I had my uterus, ovaries, and Fallopian tubes removed for a BENIGN ovarian cyst in a Catholic hospital (no other female problems my whole life). I could NEVER have imagined this happening. But hey, even ACOG says that 76% of hysterectomies do not meet their criteria – And only about 2% are done for cancer.

    If Catholic hospitals practice what they preach (no birth control) and follow their mission of dignity and compassion for all, why are they hysterectomizing and castr*ting women (and causing medically documented harm) at alarming rates?


  • Dr. Bill

    January 28, 2014 #5 Author

    A few years ago, a surgeon known for his faith in God was discussing an upcoming operation with his patient. He concluded his instructions with
    his reassurance that “with God in the OR assisting me I feel confident the operation will be successful”.

    The patients thought for a moment and said,”Doctor,if you don’t mind,
    could you refer me to a surgeon who does not need that kind of help?”


  • Muhammad Saifudin

    January 28, 2014 #6 Author

    I agree with dorvi about not imposing ones beliefs on another, however, his example of a Muslim surgeon praying to “Allah or ‘his profet Muhammend’ (Prophet Muhammad) for avoiding hell before a scheduled surgery of him a christian or his family” would never be done by a Muslim, surgeon or otherwise because this is not part of Islam and regarding heaven and hell and its inhabitants (according to God, Allah), it is better to read the Quran to understand this concept. A believing Muslim surgeon would more likely begin his/her surgery, with ‘In the name of Allah, most Gracious most Beneficent’, as all good actions and deeds are begun this way. He or She may also pray to Allah for a successful surgery and outcome (for any patient of any belief or persuasion), but he or she would not impose his beliefs on a patient or family by using fear tactics. Islam is often spread through a Muslims good, kind and caring behavior. Unfortunately, due to ignorance of the Religion and misguidance, some have and do go astray leading to harm to others. But, this is not particular to Muslims alone.


  • John

    January 28, 2014 #7 Author

    I agree with dorvi as well about the imposition of beliefs on another and his contention that lack of religion does and should not label or suggest a physician is less caring, but disagree with his application to this situation. This appears to be a free clinic, which neither hides from its faith-based premise nor requires prayer or spirituality as a prerequisite for services rendered. That being said, if a physician does not respect a patient’s beliefs about religion, Supernatural presence, the afterlife, etc. regardless of his/her own beliefs, that physician fails to fully comprehend his role and profession. I would contend, however, that whether you are Atheist, Agnostic, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, or any other religion, your worldview will always affect your interactions with other people. Our worldview seasons our thoughts, actions, interpretations, body language, and emotions. In addition, because of the nature of our profession, emotional turmoil, fear, suffering, loss, and death are not just more likely but expected. Avoiding those elements of health and wellness is a denigration of the practice of medicine. I am overstepping, but I think we interpret religious freedom as religious separation. “You can be a muslim, but you can’t let being a muslim affect how you work.” If you are buddhist, it will absolutely affect how you practice medicine. If you are atheist, it will absolutely affect how you practice medicine. To deny this fact is to deny that your most fundamental worldview affects your decision making and behavior patterns.
    There is, of course, a line beyond which religious imposition and oppression begin. To fully reveal my cards, the christian faith is one that should respect and defend the rights of all individuals to practice their beliefs or worldview. It would profess that religion in its purest form is caring for orphans and widows, and the penultimate example is humble sacrifice for those who do not deserve it. Everyone falls short of religious norms, and I, even as I am making these claims, realize just how far short I fall. We must pursue religious freedoms, compassionate healthcare, and avoid intellectual, cultural, or emotional oppression.


    • Mitch

      January 29, 2014 #8 Author

      The majority of the Christian faith do not “respect or defend the rights of all individuals” i.e. Unbelievers and gays as their book tells them making those Chritians who do respect and defend feel guilty and need to repent. I was one of them. With the majority of atheists comes humanism as world view, so please tell me one moral thing a Christian can do that an atheist can’t.


  • Alex

    January 29, 2014 #9 Author

    I Completely disagree with Dorvi , you sir are not concerned with the complete care of your patients ; if you were you would not have informed us of your atheism !!! Your conclusions of this well-informed , good-intentioned future doctor are deleterious at best !!! The recent study grant-approved NIH study; asked patients about their faith or lack there of ; there was an overwhelming response of 40-60% of patients preferred their physicians’ of choice pray with them !! Perhaps you’re mysogynous , misguided self-imposed conjecture to this future doctor was your lack of faith ; say what you may you sir of 28 years perhaps have unintentionally created a succession of lackluster caring doctors due to your atheism ? Did you ever seek the patients opinion 1st and foremost or have you for the past 28 years did what
    You claim this young doctor to have done ? Shame on you, no physician should impose their own beliefs or will on their patients !!!!!


  • ems

    February 1, 2014 #10 Author

    Providing true holistic care (I.e complete care) addresses the whole person– physically, mentally, emotionally, & spiritually. Asking what helps the pt in the time of need or what kind of support they have or if prayer would be helpful is not at all ‘imposing ones beliefs’; it’s just providing good health care.


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