Few topics are more likely to cause argument among doctors than the influence of religion on healing, but a survey suggests most physicians bring their ideas about religion into their practice, U.S. researchers reported on Monday.
Physicians have been debating studies about the influence of religion and spirituality on patient health for more than a decade, but little consensus has emerged.
A new study may give clues about why, said Dr. Farr Curlin, a University of Chicago researcher whose findings appear in this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine.
Curlin and colleagues surveyed U.S. doctors about their views on religion, spirituality and healing and found a strong association between physicians’ views and their own religious beliefs.
“This is yet more evidence that doctors are not just objective, neutral scientists. Their religious or secular commitments influence the way they respond to patients and the way they interpret data,” Curlin said in a telephone interview.
Curlin and colleagues mailed a survey in 2003 to a random sample of 2,000 practicing U.S. doctors aged 65 or younger from all specialties. Some 63 percent responded and the average age of respondents was 49.
They found that 85 percent of those surveyed believe religion or spirituality is generally positive, but only 6 percent say it often changes “hard” medical outcomes, reflecting some sort of miraculous healing.
About three quarters of those surveyed say spirituality helps patients cope and believe it gives them a positive state of mind. About 7 percent, however, said it often causes negative emotions such as guilt and anxiety and some 4 percent think patients use spirituality to avoid taking responsibility for their health.
Doctors who are most religious are more likely to see the positive influence of religion on their patients.
These physicians are much more likely to report that their patients bring up religion and issues of spirituality. They are much more likely to say religion has a strong influence on health and to interpret religion and spirituality in positive rather than negative ways.
“Physicians’ notions about the relationships between religion and spirituality and patients’ health are strongly associated with physicians’ own religious characteristics,” Curlin’s team wrote.
Based on the findings, the researchers said doctors should be aware that their own views of religion could influence how they provide care and patients should take note of their doctors’ biases.
“Their doctor’s own religious beliefs will influence how the doctor responds to the patient’s spiritual concerns,” Curlin said.