Increased trust, decreased fear, in the doctor-patient relationship


PETALUMA, CA, Oct. 20, 2014 – Does it really matter if your doctor appreciates the power of prayer? For me it may not have been the most important factor to consider but, ultimately, a significant if unexpected plus.

I had spent the better part of three weeks in the hospital, lying in traction, recovering from a number of injuries following a serious accident – two broken legs, various internal injuries and extensive cuts and bruises to my face. At the moment, however, the biggest challenge confronting me was whether or not to go ahead with what one of my doctors considered an immediate need for surgery to mend a shattered pelvis.

After consulting with my parents, I asked if I could be given the rest of the afternoon and that evening to think things through. My doctor agreed and said that he would still plan on coming by in the morning to prep for an operation.

Although on the surface this seemed like a fairly normal exchange between doctor and patient, what was left unsaid between the two of us was just as important as what was.

You see, during the previous three weeks, the hospital staff taking care of me had observed not only a pretty rapid recovery from what were considered life-altering if not life-threatening injuries, but also a patient – and a patient’s family – relying wholeheartedly on prayer and their practice of Christian Science for healing, with good results.

On one occasion, during an operation to repair what was diagnosed as severe internal bleeding, the doctors ended up finding nothing wrong. As one of the members of the surgical team put it, “Someone must have gotten in there before us.” And within a relatively short time, every scratch and scar on my face had healed over without any medical intervention.

So, what neither my doctor nor I said when I asked for some time before going ahead with the surgery, but which each of us undoubtedly felt, was, “I trust you.”

The next morning, new X-rays were taken which showed dramatic improvement. Instead of carting me off to the operating room, plans were made for me to complete my recovery at home.

According to Dr. Leana Wen, a specialist in emergency medicine at George Washington University, knowing, for instance, whether a physician appreciates what prayer might bring to the healing equation matters just as much to the patient as their health care provider’s competence or professional bias.

“[Patients] want to first understand their doctor’s values,” said Wen during a recent TEDMED talk in Washington, D.C. “Just because doctors have to see every patient doesn’t mean that patients have to see every doctor.”

“If you go to your doctor because of back pain, you might want to know that he’s getting paid $5000 to perform spine surgery versus $25 to refer you to see a physical therapist,” she said, referring to a website she set up as a way for doctors to provide full disclosure of both their professional and personal background. “[But] we go one step further. We [disclose] our values when it comes to women’s health, LGBT health, alternative medicine, preventative health and end of life decisions.”

This isn’t to say that these doctors are putting their seal of approval on a particular lifestyle or choice of care, only that they don’t hold a bias against, or maybe have some personal familiarity with, a variety of what are often considered unconventional approaches to health or less-important factors in the doctor-patient relationship.

The goal, according to Wen, is get rid of not only the fear of sickness but also the sickness of fear that she feels has infected the practice of medicine.

Which brings us back to my experience in the hospital. Although it would be difficult to prove using conventional scientific methods, it’s possible if not likely that a combination of increased trust and decreased fear on both my own and my doctor’s part contributed significantly to the overnight turnaround in my condition.

If only this prescription could be applied more broadly.

Eric Nelson’s columns on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs.

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