Spiritual healing

Here's an article I wrote on spiritual healing, which is in today's Times 2 magazine.

Spiritual healing looks to go mainstream

As the government considers statutory regulation for Chinese complementary medicine, spiritual healing is also looking for a greater role within the NHS, writes Jules Evans.

If you see Angie Buxton-King at work in the University College Hospital (UCH) cancer treatment wards in central London, she looks like any other hard-working member of the NHS - on-the-ball, down-to-earth, somewhat over-worked. But Angie's talents are slightly different from those of the other staff around her. She is a spiritual healer, one of very few working on the NHS pay-roll.

Patients who come to UCH's pioneering cancer wards are offered, in addition to the chemotherapy and radiotherapy that forms the backbone of their treatment, a range of complementary medicine treatments, provided by a four-person team managed by Angie. There's a counsellor, a massage therapist, and two healers - her husband Graham and herself. And their services are in great demand. This isn't surprising - statistics suggest that around 90% of cancer patients use complementary medicine such as massage, aromatherapy and spiritual healing.

The healers have an office very like any other NHS office - computers, filing cabinets, NHS paperwork. In the back of the office, however, is a small room, where patients lie down on a couch. There, Angie turns on a CD of relaxing music, puts her hands on and over the body of the sick patient, and channels healing energy. Patients often report feeling a heat emanating from the hands, as well as a profound feeling of relaxation and peace. Then, after fifteen minutes or so, it's time for the next patient.

How did a practitioner of spiritual healing, which some would call a throw-back to an earlier age of medicine, come to be practicing amid the high-tech treatments of UCH? It started in the late 1990s, when Angie's son, Sam, was battling leukemia. Angie says: 'His diagnosis came with the mind-set that he would not live longer than about three months. So we looked at alternative ways of helping him, and over the following three years that he lived, it became very obvious that his quality of life was improved by healing.'

Angie became very motivated to offer her services as a healer to other patients battling cancer within the NHS. She first offered her services to Great Ormond Street hospital, where Sam had been treated. They were sceptical, so she went round the corner to UCH, known for its pioneering work in treating cancer. Stephen Rowley, clinical director of haemotology at UCH, says: 'Angie came to us and asked for an opportunity to prove the need for her services.'

UCH took her on for one day a week for a trial month. Angie says: 'After one month, they said they were very interested in the results. The whole ward benefitted - not just the patients, but the staff as well. The results are very tangible.' The hospital took Angie on for two days a week, then eventually as a the manager of the four-person complementary team. Four other healers also work at UCLH, paid for by a charity that Angie and Graham set up.

Her team is now very accepted and integrated into the cancer wards of UCH. Dr Maria Michelagnoli, paediatric and adolescent consultant oncologist at UCH, says: 'I'd call myself quite a sceptic at the beginning, but you see the results and you can't question the results. I'd be absolutely devastated if we lost these professionals. They're an essential part of the team.' Dr Rowley says: 'I see experienced doctors call for the healer to help support a child having a cannula put into a vein. We see patients benefit physically and psychologically in many ways. We'd like to see complementary medicine as a mandatory part of any cancer team.'

Other experts in cancer treatment also believe spiritual healing has a place in NHS treatment. Derryn Borley, the head of cancer support services at Macmillan Cancer Support, says: 'We think it certainly has a place. It's very accepted by most people who treat cancer. There's evidence that it improves patients' moods, that it can help with physical symptoms. And it helps people go through the process of chemotherapy more easily.'

So what happens during spiritual healing? There are different varieties - hands-on healing, hands-off healing, and even distant healing. Healers themselves believe they are channelling healing energy from a higher source. It is different, however from faith healing - it is non-denominational and doesn't necessarily require the patient to share the religious beliefs of the practitioner. Indeed, one study showed spiritual healing having a positive effect on plants. Some scientists believe that, if it does work, it is a result of the 'healing intention' of the healer's mind. There's growing evidence, for example, that praying for the sick helps them recover.

One study by the Rabin Medical Center in Israel, published in the British Medical Journal in 2001, conducted a trial on two groups of people with bloodstream infections, one of which were prayed for, the other of which weren't. The study found that the prayed-for patients had shorter hospital stays, shorter duration of fever, and lower chances of mortality.

A study in 2000 supported by the Wellcome Trust, carried out by professor Edzard Ernst, who is the UK's leading professor of complementary medicine, carried out a systematic review of 23 randomized, controlled trials of distant healing. The report found: '57% of the trials showed a positive treatment effect.' Ernst has since carried out his own trial of 110 patients with chronic pain. Half of them were treated by professional spiritual healers. The other half were treated by actors pretending to be spiritual healers.

Ernst writes: 'The results were staggering. Improvements were so remarkable that several patients practically abandoned their wheelchairs during the study. But there were no differences between the groups. If anything, the control patients fared slightly better than those receiving 'real' healing. Even the often-quoted tingling sensation and feeling of warmth during healing sessions were also experienced by patients who received no healing at all. Results such as these strongly suggest that spiritual healing is a powerful placebo, but not much more.'

It's possible, then, that the healing comes about through the patient's own mind. 'The patient lies down, their muscles relax, and they think that something good will happen. It's about being comfortable and having a good relationship with the healer', says Borley of the Macmillan Trust. Other doctors believe that the benefits are mainly psychological. Dr Beatrice Seddon, consultant clinical oncologist at UCH, says: 'Conventional medicine is good at dealing with the physical side of illness, though probably less well-equipped at dealing with the psychological aspects.'

However, healers themselves dispute the idea that the benefits their work brings are just the result of the placebo effect. Angie says: 'I wanted to see if that was true, so for a while I just practiced on animals, and still saw positive results.' The Harry Edwards Healing Sanctuary in Surrey, which provides healing free of charge, also often treats animals. Toni Jode, senior healer there, says: 'We've treated dogs, cats, even a horse. And I don't agree with these studies where you have a 'real' healer and a 'sham' healer. Everyone has the potential to heal.'

Certainly, patients themselves say something more profound than the placebo effect took place during spiritual healing. Dr Anil Wijetunge, a tutor at the North West London NHS Trust, became sick with bone marrow cancer in 2005, and received spiritual healing at UCH. He says: 'Something was going on with the energy. The healers know which part of me was suffering the most, like my right leg, during the treatment. I can't explain why that happened, but it did. Seeing these healers, who I hadn't met before, they took me somewhere else, out of that isolation room. And that's what I really needed.'

Angie would like to bring spiritual healing to other NHS cancer wards, as would other doctors at UCH. She says: 'Many hospitals would love to have these services, the problem is funding.' Angie set up a charity, the Sam Buxton Sunflower Healing Trust, which funds four spiritual healers at UCH. They have raised thousands of pounds through two 'Sunflower Jam' concerts in 2006 and 2007, where acts included Robert Plant, Paul Weller and Jon Lord of Deep Purple. The next jam is set to take place in London in September, with a re-formed Deep Purple headlining.

But could the NHS provide more support for spiritual healing? Baroness Finlay, a professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff University School of Medicine, says: “The NHS needs to think carefully about how to allocate its scarce resources. It's not enough to say spiritual healing makes patients feel better. Having a hair-cut might make them feel better as well, that doesn't mean the NHS should provide it. We haven’t yet seen any studies that have demonstrated that it works. If you expect the NHS to pay for it, you need the evidence.”

The reports from patients, in fact, suggest they get more benefit from it than a haircut. Connor Devine, a young boy who received healing for leukemia at UCH, says: '[Without the healing sessions] I don't think I would have made it. It meant so much to me.' Ryan Palmer-Fenny, another boy who received healing for leukemia at UCH, says: 'If I hadn't had the healing sessions, I might have fallen behind with the chemo, and I might not be here today.'

Still, healers themselves accept that more research needs to be done to try and give the practice the hard evidential support it needs. One study about to be published, by Fiona Barlow, a PhD student at Bournemouth University, conducted a trial of 12 women recovering from breast cancer, who received healing from Toni Jode and another healer at the Harry Edwards Sanctuary. Fiona says that all the 12 women felt positive results and said they would recommend spiritual healing to others.

One of the participants, Joanna Mountevans, a nurse with 30 years' experience, says: 'I went into the trial with an open mind. I neither believed in it nor disbelieved in it. To my surprise, I felt a great effect from the sessions of healing with Toni. I felt serene afterwards. I was going through a hectic period of my life, and it was like whatever life threw at me, I could cope with. I would say it's a healing of the spirit. I found the experience tremendously uplifting and would recommend it to anyone.'

Angie Buxton-King is also carrying out a major trial into the effects of Reiki, a form of spiritual healing that came from Japan, later this year. The trial will include 200 patients and will be funded by UCH.

She says the other aspect of spiritual healing that needs to be improved to make it more institutionalized and mainstream is the regulation. This is the way other complementary therapies are heading - a government working group chaired by professor Mike Pittilo recently recommended statutory regulation for Chinese medicine and acupuncture. Writing in The Times in June, Pittilo said: 'There is honest recognition that the evidence base for many [complementary] therapies is thin, but given the public demand for treatment, this should be addressed alongside the introduction of statutory regulation rather than as a pre-requisite.'

Graham King, who also works as a healer at the oncology ward of UCH, says: “ Regulation of spiritual healing needs to be improved. There are too many organizations, and many different healers who don’t belong to any organizations. There are no proper complaints procedures. There are some organizations where as soon as a healer signs up to them, they refer people to them, without any proper training.” Angie agrees: 'Some healers also want to provide spiritual counselling to people. “But that’s not our job. A healer's spiritual beliefs are their own private affair. Spiritual healing has to fit into a box, to some extent, if it’s going to be integrated into the NHS.”

Regulating the industry could be a challenge. There are 15,000 healers at work in the UK, and several different governing bodies. But Angie says: 'It's the only way it's going to go forward.'

The 2008 Sunflower Jam is taking place on Thursday 25 September in London. For more information go to www.thesunflowerjam.com