updated 9/4/2007 1:37:32 PM ET 2007-09-04T17:37:32

Psychiatrists are the least religious of all physicians, a nationwide survey reveals.

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The study, published in the September issue of the journal Psychiatric Services, also found that religious physicians are more likely to refer patients to a clergy person than a psychiatrist or psychologist.

"Something about psychiatry, perhaps its historical ties to psychoanalysis and the anti-religious views of the early analysts such as Sigmund Freud, seems to dissuade religious medical students from choosing to specialize in this field," said lead study author Farr Curlin, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago.

In a past study, Curlin and his colleagues reported most doctors are willing to discuss religion with patients.

Religious data analyzed
In 2003, Curlin and his colleagues surveyed 1,820 practicing physicians, from which 1,144 physicians responded, including 100 psychiatrists. The survey contained questions about medical specialties, and various aspects of religion. That data has now been analyzed.

Whereas 61 percent of other physicians reported Protestant or Catholic affiliation, just 37 percent of psychiatrists were associated with the two religions.

Nearly 30 percent of psychiatrists were Jewish denomination compared with 13 percent of other physicians.

17 percent of psychiatrists reported "none" for religion compared with 10 percent of other doctors.

Participants also responded to a hypothetical scenario involving a mentally-disturbed patient, saying whether they would refer the patient to a psychiatrist/psychologist, clergy member/religious counselor, healthcare chaplain, or other.

Overall, more than half of other physicians would refer a patient to a psychiatrist/psychologist.

  • 25 percent would refer to a clergy member/religious counselor.
  • 7 percent would refer to a healthcare chaplain.
  • 12 percent would refer to someone else.

The authors note just because a doctor chooses to refer a patient to a clergy member, however, does not equate with an unwillingness to refer patients to psychiatrists.

However, the religious beliefs of doctors could be an important factor, they say, for patients' mental healthcare.

"Because psychiatrists take care of patients struggling with emotional, personal and relational problems," Curlin said, "the gap between the religiousness of the average psychiatrist and her average patient may make it difficult for them to connect on a human level."

Whether a gap between patients and doctors exists was not examined.

A survey of more than 1,700 American adults conducted by Baylor University and the Gallup Poll in 2005 found that about 10 percent reported no affiliation with a religious group or denomination, while 34 percent reported Evangelical Protestant affiliation and 21 percent Catholic.

Curlin's study on physician religious beliefs was funded by the Greenwall Foundation, National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program.

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