Physician approaches to patient spirituality vary according to doctors' religious characteristics

d 17 percent identified themselves as being both highly religious and highly spiritual. Thirty-nine percent of the physicians were Protestants, 22 percent Catholics, 16 percent Jewish, 13 percent other religion, and 11 percent reported no religion.

Physicians who said they were highly religious and spiritual differed from less religious and spiritual doctors on every attitude and behavior. Seventy-six percent of the most religious doctors ask about their patients' beliefs compared to 23 percent of minimally religious physicians. Seventy-six percent of highly religious doctors pray with patients compared to 30 percent of less religious physicians.

Although the level of religious commitment was more important than the particular religious tradition, Protestants were the most likely to inquire about a patient's beliefs and the most likely to pray with patients.

For patients, religion often comes to the fore during an illness. Some doctors have argued that physicians should honor those feelings as a part of patient-centered care, maintaining that such discussions, and even prayer, can be attentive and comforting. Thirty-eight percent of those surveyed thought doctors spent too little time addressing spiritual needs.

Others see it as a violation of boundaries. Because religion, like politics, can be divisive, many insist that physicians should avoid such topics. Nevertheless, only one percent of doctors thought they spent too much time in such discussions.

A previous study by Curlin's team found that physicians were more religious than expected. Seventy-six percent of doctors believe in God, 59 percent believe in some sort of afterlife, and 55 percent say their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine. Most doctors, though, were hesitant to "apply their religious beliefs to other areas of life," the researchers found. Sixty-one percent said say they "try to make sense" of a difficult situation and "decide

Contact: John Easton
University of Chicago Medical Center

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