Faith and Health

If pharmacists follow evidence-based medicine, they should feel free to recommend religion or faith to patients when the data supports it.

You have probably heard it said that more prayers are offered in the hospital than anywhere else, including church. It makes sense. After all, when someone is facing a health crisis with potentially dire consequences, they and their family members are more likely to offer a prayer for healing and safety than at other times. In addition, this is a popular research and publication topic. A PubMed search for the terms “faith and health” yields 212 results for the year 2013 alone.

I first became aware of the connection between faith and health many years ago when I attended a symposium on the topic sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. At the symposium, speakers representing a range of religions presented scientific data on the role of faith in improving one’s health.

I was reminded of this experience while reading an editorial by Ari N. Schulman in the August 9, 2013, issue of the Wall Street Journal. The article, titled “Does faith make you healthier?,” describes some recent studies demonstrating the benefits of religion on health. Schulman writes that these studies “have found that religious identification and church attendance are associated with less social isolation, lower risk of substance abuse, lower rates of suicide, greater happiness and life satisfaction.”

While I believe that these findings have important applications to all of our lives, I want to focus on the opportunities they offer in helping to improve the health of our patients.

We should, of course, be diligent in talking to our patients about their medications. Not only is it important to generate an active medication list, including over-the-counter medications, but it is also our professional responsibility to ensure that each identified medical problem is being treated with a medication, that there are no identified medication-related problems, and that any side effects resulting from drug therapy are mitigated and resolved.

In addition to educating patients about their medications, however, we should also discuss with our patients behaviors unrelated to medications that may also help improve their health. For example, diabetic patients should be reminded to watch their diet and be sure to exercise. Patients with elevated cholesterol should eat appropriate foods. People who smoke should be counseled to quit. That said, how many pharmacists encourage their patients, when appropriate, to pursue religion? My guess is few, if any, due to the emotional reactions people may have when approached about their faith perspective. I do know some doctors who offer to pray with their patients, but I am unaware of any pharmacists who advise their patients to pursue religion.

In our politically correct world that separates church and state, religiously inclined pharmacists do not feel comfortable talking to their patients about this topic, especially if they work for a company that prohibits expressions of religion in the workplace. However, if data supports the health benefits associated with religion and faith, shouldn’t pharmacists be able to recommend that patients explore these avenues when appropriate just as they do other non-medication related behaviors? It seems to me that if we follow evidence-based medicine, we should feel free to recommend religion or faith when the data supports it.

Have you ever counseled a patient about religion and faith? I would appreciate hearing about your experiences doing so as well as your thoughts on this topic.