Medicine and Spirituality:
An Interview with Dr. Larry Dossey
By David Jay Brown
Larry Dossey, M.D., is considered one of the world’s experts on mind-body medicine, and is one of the leading spokespeople for integrating spirituality with medicine. He is the author of ten books on the role of consciousness and spirituality in medicine, including Space, Time & Medicine, and the New York Times bestseller Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.
Dr. Dossey graduated in 1967 from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He then served as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam and spent hundreds of hours in helicopters, rushing around with–paradoxically enough–a medical aid bag and a rifle. He says that these daily close encounters with death profoundly affected him, and they gave him an immense sense of gratitude toward life.
In the 1970s, after completing his residency in internal medicine at the Veterans Administration Hospital and Parkland Hospital in Dallas, he helped to establish the Dallas Diagnostic Association–the largest group of internal medicine practitioners in the city–and served as Chief of Staff at the Medical City Dallas Hospital. While there, he became intrigued by patients who experienced remissions that conventional medicine could not adequately explain, and by the interactions between mind and body. These experiences lead to the development of a biofeedback department at the Dallas Diagnostic Association, and to an interest in alternative and holistic medical therapies, such as imagery, visualization, and meditation.
In 1982 Dr. Dossey wrote Space, Time & Medicine, the first of a series of books about the implications that research into mind-body healing, parapsychology, and one’s world view have on medicine. This book influenced many young physicians at the time and helped promote a greater acceptance of these ideas in mainstream medicine. Some of Dr. Dossey’s other books include Beyond Illness, Recovering the Soul,Reinventing Medicine, and Prayer is Good Medicine.
More than anything else, Dr. Dossey is probably best known for his work popularizing the research which demonstrates that prayer can have measurable healing effects. Although the evidence for this phenomena–known in the scientific literature as “remote healing”–is impressive, as with much of the research into psychic phenomena, the carefully controlled, double-blind studies that have been done in this area are virtually unknown to the average person, and many scientists persist in ignoring the very interesting and compelling data that has resulted from these studies.
Dr. Dossey served as co-chair of the NIH panel on Mind/Body Interventions at the government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. For nearly ten years he was the executive editor of the medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, which he helped found in 1995. Currently, he is executive editor of Exlore: The Journal of Science and Healing. He is a very popular public speaker, and has appeared on Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Good Morning America, and NBC TV’s Dateline. Dr. Dossey was the first physician ever invited to deliver the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, India.
Dr. Dossey lives in New Mexico. I interviewed him on January 30, 2006. I was instantly comfortable with Larry. He’s very kind and gracious. I was particularly struck by Larry’s strong sense of optimism and his contagious sense of hope. We spoke about mind-body medicine, research into remote healing, the problems with conventional Western medical treatments, and the future of medicine.
David: What originally inspired your interest in medicine?
Larry: I’m still trying to figure that out. There’s no tradition in my family of medicine, and there have never been any other doctors in my family, as far as I know. I seem to have an innate fascination with science. I went away to the University of Texas at Austin, and fell in love with biology and chemistry. I got a degree in pharmacy, with almost a major in chemistry, and studied pre-med as well. I actually worked my way through medical school on weekends as a registered pharmacist. So I don’t know how to explain my fascination and obsession with medicine–but it’s certainly very deep, and it’s been a commitment all my life.
David: How did your experience in Vietnam effect your perspective on medicine?
Larry: I had one of the strangest assignments possible for a physician in Vietnam. I functioned basically as a high-powered medic, beyond anything that would resemble a M.A.S.H. unit, carrying basically an aid bag and a rifle around. I actually went on patrols, spent hundreds of hours in helicopters, and fortunately got back alive–which took some doing. It was a daily confrontation with one’s own mortality. I was in combat for the entire time, and this experience certainly makes one humble about the blessings one has in this culture. I can assure you that, and I’ve reflected on that every day since I came back from Vietnam. It’s been a kind of indwelling presence really–the fact that I did remain alive–and it’s filled me with gratitude. I don’t think that it changed anything about my commitment to medicine, or made me see healing in any different way, but it was a confrontation with the immediacy of death, and it really was a powerful experience for me.
David: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with the way that medicine is practiced today?
Larry: Let me just name three or four. One is that it’s become so complex that it’s practically unmanageable. The institute of medicine several years ago began to make a national issue about the death rate in their hospitals from errors, and the side-effects of medications, and just flat out mistakes. There was a survey of this published in the Journal of the Medical Association three or four years ago in which these statistics were analyzed. In this paper the third leading cause of death came out to be hospital care. The death rate in American hospitals from medical mistakes, errors, and the side-effects of drugs now ranks as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.
Well, the objectors came forward and were able to reanalyze the data. I think they demoted it down to five or six, as if that’s some great accomplishment. But many experts still say that it’s number three. Even so, the fact that it’s even number five or six is still a national scandal. It should be a disgrace. But somehow people just accept this as part of the way medicine is. So the lethality of medicine is one problem. Another problem with medicine is it’s applicability. It’s been estimated that three-fourths of people who go to physicians have nothing physically wrong with them, which means that they’re beyond the reach of what high-tech, complex, modern medicine has to offer.
There’s also a problem with the expense. We’re nearing fifty million people in this country who don’t have health insurance. That’s a national disgrace. We’re the only western industrialized country for which this is so. There was a survey published in The Wall Street Journal last year which found that medical illness and medical expense was the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Now, this didn’t just apply to low income families. This applied to middle-income families. Many of them had college educations, and many of them had health insurance, but the insurance didn’t pay. This is a scandal.
Another problem with modern medicine is that it is not as effective as we want it to be. For example, take longevity. Currently the United States ranks twenty-sixth in longevity in countries in the world, behind countries like Costa Rica. Take infant mortality. We’re now thirty-ninth in the world, behind countries like Cuba, Slovenia, and Aruba. This is disgraceful. We spend more money on healthcare than any other country, I think by a factor of three now, so we’re not getting our money’s worth in many areas. You add up all of these things, and you think, well, we’ve lost our way here. I think we have lost our way, and so those are just a few of the problems I see.
David: What do you think can be done to