A friend pointed me to this NYTimes article: a doctor recounts an experience as an intern, and argues that accommodating magical thinking may be essential for patients and families to accept actual medicine. He says that such deeply held beliefs "need not only to be recognized and respected, but also integrated into the therapeutic approach in order for treatment to succeed."
A Doctor, a Rabbi, and a Chicken
By DENNIS ROSEN, M.D.
... Inside, there were perhaps 20 people, the men standing in a tight circle around my patient’s bed, the women sitting off to the side. The rabbi ... had already begun to chant the prayer for the recovery of the sick, one that I recognized. Totally new for me, however, was the role of the chicken. Clasped snugly in the rabbi’s hands, the bird was being waved in tight circles about 12 inches above the patient’s head as the prayer was being chanted. I was familiar with the practice of kaparot ... I had never, however, seen or heard of this being done as part of a Jewish healing ceremony....
I was very impressed by how deftly the son was able to maneuver between two very different belief systems explaining his father’s disease and paths towards possible recovery: biomedical and religious. As evidenced from our repeated discussions about tests and treatment plans for his father, he clearly understood — and valued — what modern medicine could offer. And yet, his belief in Divine mercy and intercession was unshakeable.
In her book “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” Anne Fadiman describes the collision between two radically different belief systems, shamanism and biomedicine, held by the parents of a Hmong girl suffering from epilepsy and the physicians caring for her. The pushback the parents encountered from the medical team when they tried to incorporate shamanistic healing into their daughter’s treatment plan led them to reject biomedicine altogether, with tragic consequences.
Although it hadn’t occurred to me to disrupt the unfamiliar ceremony with the chicken ... I probably would have been within my rights to do so: bringing live poultry into an inpatient ward is risky from an infection-control perspective, after all.
I’m glad that I didn’t. Doing so would ... likely would have provoked antagonism towards — or the outright rejection of — the biomedicine that I represented....
(Ellipses and emphasis mine. Read the entire article.)
A patient and his/her family drawing comfort from rituals, and being aware of the support of a religious community, can be a positive thing -- but those benefits come from people, not gods or spirits!
We also allow believers to pray at the bedside, so there's no real difference....