South Florida Hospital News
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December 2004 - Volume 1 - Issue 5

Medicine in Crisis: Is there a role for spirituality?

America spends more than twice the per capita dollars of any country on health care, yet consistently ranks in the lower half of the industrialized world in infant mortality and other measures of public health. Medical technology races forward, yet study upon study documents economic and racial disparities in health care delivery, with 15% of our population lacking any form of health care coverage. Doctors are equipped with more "tools" for the diagnosis and treatment of their patients than at any time in human history, yet find themselves so distracted by the onslaught of government, business and liability that they have less time and energy to devote to their patients’ actual "care". Although solutions must ultimately be hammered out in the realm of public policy, these dilemmas highlight the role that spirituality can play in achieving proper focus in medicine.

The role of religion and/or spirituality in medicine is ubiquitous throughout history. Even in our most current situation we find NIH grants—powered by data that prayer can shorten intensive care length of stay—to explore the role of prayer in health care outcomes. The scope of this issue is vast. In this brief context, I would merely like to offer two personal experiences where strong religious belief has remarkably enhanced my professional capabilities.

"How did the operation go?" asked the Rabbi. "Not so well," retorted the surgeon. "Did you do the best that anyone in your situation could be expected to do?" "Yeah, but the patient isn’t doing so great." "Do not forget," assured the Rabbi, "you do not hold within your hands the decisions of life and death. That is in God’s realm. You are his messenger. As a messenger of God you are obligated to learn everything you can learn, and work as hard as you possibly can to do the very best that you can do for your patients. That is your responsibility to your patient, to yourself and to your God. The outcome, however, is in His hands." Although such a perspective may dismay our colleagues in the trial lawyers associations, the reality of such this approach squarely realigns priorities where they belong. The doctor is not the God-figure in the center making life and death decisions, but rather the faithful servant/advocate of his patient, perfecting his skills to the highest level possible, but never forgetting his role and obligation to serve his patients.

"Certainly, Rabbi, you must admit that evolution makes Biblical explanations of creation untenable," contended the young agnostic. "Evolution?" retorted the Rabbi. "An interesting theory, but one which is overwhelming disproven by the weight of scientific evidence and logic…" Some time later in the discussion, the young gentleman could not help but to be impressed with how respectful the elder scholar’s grandchildren had behaved during the course of their conversation, being certain to ask the Rabbi if there was anything he needed or anything they could do for him. He casually remarked, "Excuse me Rabbi, I could not help but to notice how politely and genuinely warmly your grandchildren treat you; I am lucky if I can even get a "hello" out of my kids!" "That," replied the Rabbi, "is because for your children, you are one generation closer to the apes, whereas for my grandchildren, I am two generations closer to the revelation of God at Mt Sinai." For the secularist, science and religion are necessarily at odds. For the spiritualist they cannot be. Science is nothing more than God’s creation – man – whom He endowed with the ability for knowledge and insight ("in His image"), using that very gift to explore and understand the very world which God created. Any apparent contradiction is a failure to explore all the evidence, or a misunderstanding of the words which our God has given us. Whether you would subscribe to such an approach or not, just consider its impact on the field of scientific endeavor. If the world is nothing but the culmination of chance occurrences, then any phenomenon could have a virtually infinite number of precursors and sequellae – making the full exploration of said phenomenon tedious if not impossible. However, if the world in which we live is actually the product of an Intelligence, and we have implanted within us a spark of that very Intelligence, then we have the innate potential to gain insight into said phenomenon, how it works, and what is its role in the world. What a blessing for the advancement of science!

Spirituality, rather than being distracting, escapist or irrelevant to noble profession of medicine, can actually foster, nourish and focus medicine in the pursuit of its highest ideals.

Dr. Paul Kurlansky, board certified cardiothoracic surgeon, Director of Research at the Miami Heart Research Institute, can be reached at (305) 674-3154 or
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