Opinion: Is Modern Medicine a Religion?

November 7, 2018

Physicians are our priests, the war on disease has replaced the fight against sin, and pills are our Eucharist. 

I believe that a large number of pharmacists would agree with the proposition that medicine sometimes feels like a religion. For example, do you agree that physicians resemble priests, nurses resemble nuns, pills resemble communion wafers, and ancillary health professionals-pharmacists, physicians’ assistants, optometrists-resemble acolytes? The use of Latin in prescriptions mirrors the use of Latin in Mass.

Physicians serve many of the functions today that priests served in past centuries. When you pass a physical, your physician gives you his ‘blessing’ that you are in good health. In many ways, the medical check-up resembles the confession in the Catholic Church. The confession involves the confessor and the priest. The medical check-up involves the patient and the physician.

If physicians were true scientists, would we be told to “have faith in your doctor” or “have faith in modern medicine”? We are not told to “have faith” in true scientists like chemists, biologists, physicists, geologists, and astronomers. So why should we be expected to have faith in physicians unless they indeed play a quasi-religious role in society?

White Coats: A Quasi-Religious Symbol?

Many healthcare-related schools recognize student achievements in what is known as a “white-coat ceremony.” A relatively new ritual in such professions as pharmacy, medicine, dentistry, and nursing, it marks a student’s transition to the study of clinical health sciences. Many students consider it a rite of passage in the journey toward a healthcare career.

Critics believe that these ceremonies create a sense of entitlement to trust and respect that is unhealthy and likely to foster an elitism that separates patients from healthcare professionals. Many allege that white-coat ceremonies have taken on a quasi-religious significance that symbolizes the conversion of a lay person into a member of the healthcare profession, similar to ordination of a priest into a religious hierarchy.

White coat ceremonies at many pharmacy schools have a distinct religious feel wherein students are initiated into the brotherhood of modern medicine. They are initiated into a molecular, cellular, and reductionist view of human health in which pills are better than prevention, and in which there is a powerful bias toward pharmacological approaches to illness rather than dietary/nutritional and lifestyle approaches.

The Seminary Known as Pharmacy School

Pharmacy school resembles a seminary in which young impressionable students are force-fed a narrow mechanistic view of human health. Social, cultural, psychological, political, economic, and environmental factors are largely ignored because these factors do not coincide with the tidy, product-centered, pill-for-every-ill approach to health favored by the powers-that-be in the world of pharmacy.

Suspension of Critical Thinking

Modern medicine is much like a religion in that both require a suspension of critical thinking. We cannot see a god, but we are expected to believe that one exists. Similarly, when watching drug commercials on television, we are expected to ignore what our brain is telling us, for example, that the long lists of potential side effects are very scary.

Both medicine and religion depend heavily on the power of suggestion. For example, the placebo effect is recognized as an important factor in the effectiveness of many drugs. Surprisingly, the FDA often approves drugs that show only marginal benefit over a placebo. But when one factors in the adverse effects associated with actual drugs, the placebo might logically be considered the superior agent.

A Google search yields a surprising number of serious articles and books discussing the proposition that much of modern medicine resembles a religion. An article titled "Is Medicine A Fundamantalist Religion?" by Lissa Rankin, MD, (Psychology Today, Aug. 28, 2012) is typical:

I was religiously trained to worship the dogma of medicine as if it were the Bible, and it was made very clear to me that I would be excommunicated should I ever turn my back on what I’d been taught.

Physicians were our priests, the war on disease replaced the fight against sin, and pills were my communion. Those who questioned the dogma of my religion were persecuted as “quacks” the way the church persecuted heretics.

Until my mid-thirties, I was a devoted practitioner of my faith. I bowed to evidence-based medicine, technology, pharmaceuticals, and the idea that physicians are gods with superhuman powers, who never make mistakes and should always be trusted. I believed that patients couldn’t be trusted with their own bodies, that only physicians trained in gross anatomy in prestigious universities had the knowledge and experience required to heal a body, and that a treatment is only effective if randomized controlled clinical trials prove that the treatment is more effective than a placebo.

We Need a More Humble Attitude

Hospitals are modern-day cathedrals where disciples worship the latest drugs and technology being promoted by representatives of the medical-industrial-pharmaceutical complex. Perhaps a more humble attitude among health professionals is appropriate given the abundant uncertainties surrounding many of the products and services we provide.

 

Dennis Miller, R.Ph. is a retired chain store pharmacist living in Delray Beach, Florida. He welcomes feedback at dmiller1952@aol.com.