Spellbinding: The tricky role of superstition in medicine

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS | Fact-checked by Barbara Bekiesz
Published October 24, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Superstition ties two events that are scientifically unrelated.

  • Patients and physicians both engage in superstitious practices.

  • When treating patients, physicians should recognize and address superstitions that interfere with patient insight into disease.

Superstitions remain rampant in modern society, and these beliefs have even worked their way into healthcare. For example, some individuals forgo scientific explanations for treating their illness and instead believe luck and rituals have a positive impact on their healing.

Despite the potential for superstitions to undermine evidence-based care, both HCPs and patients, across countries and cultures, cling to them.

Defining superstitions

Superstition refers to beliefs about events that are unmoored from scientific understanding. With superstition, unnatural elements are used to inform actions and beliefs. 

“Despite the many scientific and technological advances in the modern world and the information explosion, superstitious tendencies still linger in human life, and these beliefs are so interwoven with people's thoughts that no limits can be construed for them,” wrote the authors of an article in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care.[] 

Superstition conflates events sans scientific or natural reason for any correlation. Sometimes, superstition involves chance. The psychological and philosophical concept of “luck” affects behavior. Superstitions are based on history, culture, and myths. 

Regardless of science or advances in technology, superstitions persist in the modern world. They linger despite a surplus of scientific explanations and remain boundless in what can be conceived.

Authors of a study published in International Medical Education offer the following take on superstition:[]

“Historically, superstition has chiefly stemmed from illiteracy, immaturity, and anxiety about the unknown, usually related to the incorrect clarification of natural events. Superstitions could have a religious, cultural, and personal basis," they wrote.

"Of relevance, religious principles and practices may appear superstitious to a person without faith."

Authors, International Medical Education

Whether religion is a superstition is a matter of personal belief, but various communities throughout the world use cultural and ritual superstitions to inform a variety of beliefs and behaviors, including their ability to ward off illness, foretell the future, summon good fortune, obviate disease or accidents, and even offer guidance in choosing a life partner.

Examples of superstitious health beliefs

Countless superstitions populate cultures and communities worldwide. In broad strokes, they can be categorized as cultural, religious, and personal. They also impact medical care.

Due to increasing globalization, it may be helpful for physicians to recognize superstition in various cultures. Here are some examples:

  • At Kyoto University hospital, Japanese patients asked to prolong their stay beyond the time recommended by their physician, so they could be discharged on a “lucky” day vs an “unlucky” one. This can ultimately increase hospital costs.

  • In some Pakistani communities, superstition interferes with health-seeking behaviors and response to health-intervention programs.

  • In India, 62% of patients with schizophrenia turn to witches for treatment. 

  • In developing countries, many people of lower socioeconomic status turn to traditional healers instead of evidence-based care, as the latter may be too expensive or unavailable.

HCPs are also susceptible to superstition. For instance, in Taiwan, nurses believe in good and bad luck. In Japan, some microsurgeons wear charms during surgery. Despite microsurgery being an evidence-based intervention, adverse events such as flap necrosis still occur, and ostensibly, these charms are thought to avert bad clinical outcomes.[] Indeed, there are even accounts of American microsurgeons wearing charm bracelets.[]

Effect of superstitions on treatment

The authors writing in the Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care explain that people with irrational beliefs exhibit ill thoughts that stymie flexibility and oppose change, with their values affecting beliefs about human needs, illness, and health. Consequently, the response of superstitious people to disease impacts their choice of treatment and quality of life. On the other hand, a person with flexible health beliefs accepts change. 

Clinicians can find it helpful to be aware of a patient’s belief system. “The recognition of beliefs is effective in the achievement of health and treatment goals,” the authors write. “The ability of the medical personnel, such as physicians and nurses, to recognize the patients' beliefs and values, which constitute their motivation for decisions and behaviors, better enables them to provide the patient with effective training and counseling and pave the way for behavior change.” 

What this means for you

Superstitions are intrinsic to the healthcare system. Physicians and other healthcare providers can educate and counsel their patients with these superstitious beliefs in mind, understanding that such superstition drives health behaviors and actions. By acknowledging superstition when counseling a patient, factors that affect beliefs and behaviors in potentially irrational ways can be addressed. 

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