Many doctors comfortable talking religion with patients

Protestant physicians were more likely to talk about religious issues and pray with patients than were doctors of other faiths, a study shows.

By Damon Adams — Posted June 5, 2006

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Most physicians say it is OK to talk about religious issues if a patient brings up them up. But doctors are nearly split about when it is appropriate to ask a patient about such beliefs.

A national survey of 1,144 physicians found that 91% of doctors believe it is appropriate to discuss religion/spirituality issues when a patient brings them up. The survey, which appears in the May issue of the journal Medical Care, found that 55% of doctors said it is usually or always appropriate to ask about a patient's religion. The remaining 45% considered it inappropriate to be the one to broach the topic.

Few physicians said they often or always share their own religious ideas and experiences. Some doctors reported praying with patients on occasion.

"The more religious doctors were much more likely to say this is an appropriate part of medicine and they engage in it," said lead study author Farr Curlin, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago. "Doctors who are more secular or less religious are less likely to say it's important."

Protestant physicians were most likely to discuss religious issues and pray with patients. Jewish and Catholic doctors were less likely than Protestants to talk about religious issues and pray, according to the study.

When asked to identify barriers that discouraged them from discussing faith issues with patients, 48% of doctors said they had insufficient time, and 40% cited concerns about offending patients.

Dr. Curlin said differences in physicians' religious characteristics make it difficult to find a consensus on how and if doctors should address a patient's religious concerns. The study noted that many medical schools have instituted courses on faith and medicine, and some organizations, such as the American Assn. of Medical Colleges, have developed guidelines for such courses.

The findings add to previous research, also led by Dr. Curlin, which found that 76% of doctors believed in God and 59% thought there was an afterlife. Physicians were more likely to attend religious services than the general population, according to that study in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

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Faith's role in medicine

Protestant doctors were most likely to explore religious issues with their patients, according to a new survey. Here is a look at responses by physician faith:

I share my own religion/spirituality
ideas and experiences
Catholic 46%
Jewish 13%
Protestant 53%
Other 46%
None 15%
I never try to change the subject when
religion/spirituality comes up
Catholic 41%
Jewish 32%
Protestant 44%
Other 39%
None 27%
I pray with patients
Catholic 57%
Jewish 22%
Protestant 69%
Other 64%
None 20%

Source: "The Association of Physicians' Religious Characteristics with Their Attitudes and Self-Reported Behaviors Regarding Religion and Spirituality in the Clinical Encounter," Medical Care, May

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External links

"The Association of Physicians' Religious Characteristics with Their Attitudes and Self-Reported Behaviors Regarding Religion and Spirituality in the Clinical Encounter," abstract, Medical Care, May (link)

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