News & Perspectives

Tending to the Body, Mind, Spirit
University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality and Healing

Clerics and the like are no longer the only professionals discussing healing and spirituality. Polls show most Americans believe that faith and prayer benefit health, and that doctors should discuss the connection with their patients. It's all part of a growing trend to reintroduce spirituality into medical practice. In the early Nineties, only three American medical schools taught courses on religious and spiritual issues. Today, some 60 medical schools--or approximately half--do.

A pioneer in this area is the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, which in 1997 created the Center for Spirituality and Healing. The center integrates high-tech care with a range of alternative therapies. The result is a holistic approach that encompasses the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of healing.

When the black bag is empty
"People often struggle at a spiritual level when confronted with serious illness," says Dr. Mary Jo Kreitzer, director of the center. For some, that means praying or attending church; for others, it's a spiritual quest for purpose, meaning, and connectedness--with themselves, with others, or with some higher power. "Sometimes the most important thing is to help people become more intentional about their healing, to become more personally involved in their own health," she says.

The center has recently opened the Mind, Body, Spirit Clinic, which offers patients an integrated blend of therapies to complement their traditional care. "Many times the black bag is empty for physicians practicing conventional medicine," says Sharon Norling, M.D, medical director of the clinic. "In those cases, it's important to offer other forms of healing." Along with guidance from doctors, clerics and others specially trained in spiritual direction, there's meditation, yoga, hypnosis, acupuncture, chiropractic, herbs, and more. All are part of the mix, along with research. Doctors, for example, are studying the use of guided imagery to ease the side effects of chemotherapy, and medical students are exploring the use of traditional Asian herbs among Minneapolis' large Vietnamese population.

Good medicine
A number of studies have explored the issue of religion, spirituality, and health. An eight-year study conducted by the National Health Interview Survey (Demography, 5/99), for example, found that those who attend religious services live to an average age of 83, eight years longer than those who never participate in religious services. Those who regularly attend religious services, studies show, also have lower rates of depression and suicide and are less likely to have high blood pressure than non-attendees--even after accounting for lifestyle factors such as smoking and drinking.

Researchers at Harvard have shown that prayer can act like meditation to promote relaxation and reduce stress, providing a host of health-giving benefits. And in a study of visitors to a family practice clinic in Georgia, those who characterized themselves as highly or moderately spiritual had better overall health and fewer pain-related ailments than those who did not regard spirituality as an important part of their lives (Family Medicine, 2/98).

Take it on faith
Even more intriguing--and controversial--studies have examined what's called non-local or distant healing. In a study of 40 people with advanced AIDS, half were prayed for by strangers (Western Journal of Medicine, 12/98); those who were prayed for felt better and had fewer medical complications than those who didn't receive the anonymous prayers. And a recent examination of nearly 1,000 patients in the coronary care unit at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City found that those patients who were unwittingly prayed for fared better than those who got conventional care alone (Archives of Internal Medicine, 10/25/99). "If it had been a drug, the conclusion--without question--would have been that it worked," says Dr. William Harris, the study's lead author.

These studies certainly do not prove that prayer works--and others have shown no benefits from prayer. But the findings are provocative. The Minnesota experience should at least motivate doctors to recognize the role of spirituality in many people's lives and let patients explore these areas--provided they want to. "We have to be open to research evidence that's emerging," says Dr. Kreitzer. "There's a lot happening in the field of prayer and consciousness research, and we know only the tip of the iceberg."

For more information, contact: Center for Spirituality and Healing, University of Minnesota School of Medicine, 420 Delaware Street SE, Minneapolis, MN (612-624-9459;

Date Posted: 02/01/2002

Date Published: 07/13/2005
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