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Religion and Medicine Mix, Survey Indicates

A new survey suggests the vast majority of doctors are willing to discuss religion with patients, but only about half actually initiate such conversations.

And it is unlikely a physician will recommend prayer, and very unlikely he or she will pray with a patient.

The survey by researchers at the University of Chicago, reported in the May issue of the journal Medical Care, took up these sensitive topics and more.

"We found no consensus among physicians about what is customary or appropriate," said study author Farr Curlin, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "Despite efforts to standardize many aspects of the doctor-patient relationship ... patients are likely to encounter very different approaches."

Curlin and colleagues attempted to survey 2,000 practicing U.S. physicians from all specialties. Only 1,144 responded, so it is not possible to know how the results might have been skewed by those who did not respond. It is possible, for example, that religious and spiritual physicians were more apt to respond than atheists, or vice-versa.

Of those who responded, 18 percent said they were neither religious nor spiritual, while 17 percent identified themselves as being both highly religious and highly spiritual. They were a mix of 39 percent Protestant, 22 percent Catholics, 16 percent Jewish, 13 percent from other religions, and 11 percent who reported no religion.

Among the findings:

  • More than 90 percent of the doctors said it is appropriate to discuss religious or spiritual issues when a patient brings them up.
  • Three in four encourage patients’ religious beliefs and practices.
  • Half said they inquire, occasionally or more often, about a patient's faith.
  • Only 10 percent routinely mention their own faith.
  • Fewer than one in three endorses praying with patients.

How a physician approaches these decisions depends on his or her own religious and spiritual beliefs, the researchers found. For example, 76 percent of the most religious doctors ask about their patients' beliefs, though only 23 percent of minimally religious physicians did so.

Protestant doctors were the most likely to inquire about a patient's beliefs and the most likely to pray with patients.

"The close ties between belief and behavior ... suggests that physicians are unlikely to reach agreement any time soon about what is suitable," Curlin said.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.