Doctors may be more religious than previously thought, but they still aren't as religious as the general public, according to a report in the July issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
A nationwide survey of 1,144 physicians conducted in 2003 found that 76% believe in God, compared with 83% of the general public; 59% believe in an afterlife, compared with 74% of the general public; and 58% said they carry their religious beliefs over to other dealings in life, compared with 73% of the general public.
"This challenges any ideas that medicine should be neutral or uninfluenced by religion," said the report's lead author, Farr Curlin, M.D., an assistant professor in both the department of general internal medicine and the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago.
To measure the opinion of the general public, the researchers used data from 1,445 people surveyed for the 1998 General Social Survey conducted by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.
Physicians' religious affiliations were more diverse that those of the general public, and they were more likely to practice a minority religion. Of those surveyed, 14.1% were Jewish (compared with 1.9% of the public); 5.3% were Hindu (compared with 0.2%); 2.7% were Muslim (compared with 0.5%); 1.7% were Mormon (compared with 0.4%); and 1.2% were Buddhist (compared with 0.2%). Only 10.6% of the physicians surveyed had no religious affiliation, compared with 13.3% of the general public.
Although there is a tendency to believe that religion and science often collide in medical controversies such as the Terri Schiavo case or the use of emergency contraceptives, Curlin said these disputes do not necessarily involve disagreement over the scientific facts. He said they usually arise from disagreements over what those scientific facts mean.
"There is a deep-seated cultural idea that science and religion are at odds, but it's usually a case of religion versus religion or moral framework versus moral framework that are at odds," he said. "And, when that happens, the science is usually caught in the middle."
Curlin acknowledged that the medical community may view this study "as something without practical applications," but he said he thought it was important to provide a baseline description of physicians' religious characteristics and to compare them with the general population.
The report stated that medical educators are being called on to teach students how to incorporate a patient's spirituality and beliefs into their care, yet little is being done to explore physicians' spirituality and beliefs.
Curlin said he now is planning other studies that measure how a physician's faith affects his or her practice. He predicted there will be "substantial variations" in areas where there is overall societal controversy such as end-of-life care; clinical areas dealing with "existential suffering" such as depression, chronic pain or the threat of death; and areas where there is more medical uncertainty.
"I don't think you'll find doctors differing in their approach to a gangrenous leg or myocardial infarction," Curlin said, but physician attitudes toward fibromyalgia, behavior disorders, and the treatment of the elderly and chronically ill may vary greatly.
He is already looking into how physicians' religious beliefs may affect their willingness to accept unconventional treatments such as acupuncture, Reiki or ayurvedic treatments.
David Stevens, M.D., executive director of the Christian Medical Association, said that how a physician's faith affects how they practice is the "million-dollar question" that has yet to be answered.
Stevens was pleased with Curlin's findings that 76% of the physicians said they believed in God, but expressed concern that only 55% said that their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine. He said a truly religious physician would be more willing to help the less fortunate and more likely to be caring, compassionate, selfless, and to view the patient as a person rather than the "pneumonia case in room 22."
Stevens said he's seen some physicians become more religious and some turn away from religion as a result of caring for seriously ill people.
"It's a very difficult area to work in -- watching people die and being the bearer of bad news," he said. "I've seen people hardened by the process."
When that happens, Stevens said, physicians no longer get close to patients and "hide behind their white coat" as a defense mechanism. "They become very professional but not very empathetic," he said. "But patients want to know that you care as much as they want to know you can cure."