Depositions and Testimonials

This week I had to testify in a court case, and it got me thinking about the various uses and forms of the word “testimony.”

Legal Testimony

Depositions and TestimonialsIn a legal setting, the word “testimony” refers to statements made by a witness under oath. This may be done in a court of law, or in a deposition. A legal testimony for a doctor involves discussing memories about an episode of patient care, and these tend to be episodes where something bad happened to the patient.

Testifying in a legal case is an experience which every doctor is likely to have before getting too far into their career, no matter how good of a doctor you are, how conscientious you are, or how much you care about and try to help your patients. It is not a very pleasant experience to be scrutinized in this way, and it is hard not to practice defensive medicine afterwards. The paranoid thought that every patient might want to sue you for malpractice can be rather damaging to the doctor-patient relationship and to the medical decision making process, so I try not to think about it very much. This may be an ostrich’s approach to the problem, but I would rather focus on the task of trying to do what is right and building consensus with patients.

Medical Testimonial

Outside of malpractice suits, the words “testify” and “testimony” are not used much in a medical context. Instead we are more likely to hear a “testimonial.” This is when a person provides a statement about (usually an endorsement of) a medical treatment of some kind, whether it be a medication, device, or procedure. “I tried it and it worked for me,” is the basic pattern.

Testimonials are used in advertising, of course, but we also use them in the clinic fairly often, in the form of anecdotes. “Have you ever prescribed this drug?” the patient might ask.

“Many times,” I might answer. “And most patients do well with it. At this dose you’re not likely to have any side effects.”

Testimonials are exceptionally common in alternative medicine, and generally constitute most of the supporting evidence for a given therapy. When I had just returned home from my mission and was starting my studies at the university, I did some work building a website for a friend of mine who was involved in a multi-level marketing company that sold nutritional supplements. I remember typing in the testimonials of people who had endorsed the products, and one in particular caught my attention. It was a young man who said something like this (I am paraphrasing):

“My brother and I came down with the flu, and we decided to put this supplement to the ultimate test. We waited two days, until we were so sick that we were ready to go to the hospital, and then we started taking this supplement. It worked like magic, and we got better in no time!”

I think testimonials like this say more about the person making the statement than about the product they are endorsing.

Religious Testimony

A religious testimony is closer to a medical testimonial than to a legal testimony. “I tried this religion, and it worked for me.” When a believer offers testimony, they are making a statement of their belief and conviction regarding religious doctrines. For example, “Jesus Christ is my Savior,” is a statement of personal belief that a Christian may offer as their testimony. Testimony also refers to a believer’s personal collection of knowledge and conviction, whether or not they express those convictions to others. (Incidentally, the word “deposition” also has a religious meaning separate from its legal definition. It refers to the placing of Jesus in the sepulchre after the crucifixion, and is a major genre in classical Christian art.)

In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints each local congregation holds a testimony meeting once a month, usually on the first Sunday of each month during the regular worship service. Church members arrive for the meeting while fasting, and take turns at the pulpit offering their testimonies to the others in the congregation. We have several unique doctrines in our church, and if you attend one of these fast and testimony meetings you are likely to hear Latter-day Saints testify that the Church is true, that Joseph Smith is a prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that the Church is led today by a living prophet. You will also hear many testimonies of doctrines we share with other Christians, especially involving the mission of our Savior Jesus Christ, who is the center of our faith.

How does one obtain a testimony? I remember fretting about this question a lot when I was a youth, but in retrospect it was a fairly straightforward process that simply took time and consistent effort on my part. Several of my previous posts have described this process, including my recent post about Evidence-Based Religion, and a post earlier this year about my experience of serving a mission in England.

The process of building my testimony is ongoing. Every day I do things to grow closer to my Heavenly Father, like praying, studying the scriptures, and keeping the commandments. I teach the gospel to my children and others, and as I do this my knowledge and conviction grows. What started many years ago as an experiment to plant the word of God like a seed has grown remarkably, and today I can say that I believe it with all my heart.

In other words, I have tried this religion and it works for me. And so the invitation now comes to you: try it for yourself, and see.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

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