There is a ferocious debate occurring in the health field at the moment in Australia, as the Friends of Science in Medicine lobby group pressures universities to close down complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) degrees (Scientists urge unis to axe alternative medicine courses,Should universities teach alternative medicine? poll, Why universities should teach alternative medicine).
Having listened to interviews with a couple of their champions, as well as those on the opposing side, I see this as an excellent opportunity for the media and public to learn more about CAM. CAM or holistic medicine includes herbal remedies, chiropractics, homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology, acupuncture, hypnosis, as well as prayer and spirituality. Although they are all defined as CAM, they exhibit very different approaches to healing, while sharing some common features which include: a belief in the interconnectedness of the mind and body; the CAM patient is not viewed simply as an organism but as a person with a special set of circumstances; and, most CAM practitioners emphasize an active role for the patient in the therapeutic relationship, rather than the expert/layperson model of orthodox medicine.(What is complementary and alternative medicine, Michael Weir, Bond University, 2005)
As most health professionals these days espouse patient-focused care, health is no longer the domain of drug-based medicine. Both doctors and patients are voting with their feet and wallet, as around 70% of Australians use alternative therapies. Patient choice is at the heart of societal expectation these days, and universities are reflecting that expectation by providing relevant education in complementary and alternative therapies.
The field of Spirituality and Health is the newest frontier in medicine, with growing representation at universities around the world, including the Spirituality and Healing in Medicine course at the Harvard Medical School, the Research Institute for Spirituality and Health in Switzerland and the Duke Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health. In Australia, there is general acceptance in the medical community of the important role of spirituality in palliative care, as well as its positive effect on mental health. Small pockets of research in this field are springing up around the country.
However, the body of evidence of the effectiveness of spirituality and prayer from global research is surprisingly large.
Dr Larry Dossey, former co-chair of the National Institutes of Health, Alternative Medicine Division in the USA has authored a number of books where he describes three eras that currently dominate research and the practice of medicine, and I include excerpts below:
Era 1, beginning in the 1860s is plain old mechanical medicine which looks at the body and the mind as purely physical and as pursuing the laws of nature.
Era 2, emerged in the 1940s as a different way of thinking about who we are and as people started talking about psycho-somatic diseases. Today it's called Mind-Body medicine, and suggests that negative thoughts, feelings and beliefs can do bad things to the body. Dossey maintains that a great many people in the alternative health care movement think that Mind-Body medicine is just about as far out and exotic as the new model is going to get.
Era 3, 'Transpersonal' or 'Non-local' medicine is contingent on the mind to function beyond the person. There is compelling evidence that the mind has some quality which allows it to reach out across space and time to affect the physical course of not only human beings, but also a great many other living things, from bacteria and germinating seeds, to rats and mice.
In an interview with Russell DiCarlo while discussing the scientific evidence supporting the power of healing 'intention' or thought, Dossey notes that there is a huge and sometime 'forgotten' body of evidence that shows that prayer works.
This begs the question, what is prayer? Dossey comments that "the prevailing notion that prayer is asking for something to a cosmic male parent figure is woefully incomplete. One of the common features of prayerfulness that really makes a difference in the world is empathy, caring, compassion and love. And this has been demonstrated in the laboratory. Love is the felt quality that can change the state of the physical world."
When asked how he would respond to the materialist who explains away the concept of realms of existence that go beyond the physical, Dossey replied, "… the theories and hypotheses of the materialists work fine as long as you restrict yourself to a certain class of data and ignore other data. There is currently nothing within the field of biological science that can explain distant, non-local, consciousness-related events. This is not just anecdotal, but flows out of science".
Anecdotally, I can back up the data with personal experiences using prayer in Christian Science for healthcare. Many times I have relied on prayer by a practitioner of this science, and have experienced healings of infertility, influenza, grief, relationship problems, employment, and more, and I can certainly vouch that love and science are integral to healing through prayer. Interestingly, these experiences also fit into the broader category of Era 3 medicine, as described by Dossey.
So let's not overlook important data available from research into Era 3 medicine. I look forward to seeing an opening of thought to the possibilities of spirituality and prayer, with an associated increase in clinical research in this field in Australia.