Religious Characteristics of U.S. Physicians

A National Survey

Farr A. Curlin, MD; John D. Lantos, MD; Chad J. Roach, BS; Sarah A. Sellergren, MA; Marshall H. Chin, MD, MPH


J Gen Intern Med. 2005;20(7):629-634. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction

Background: Patients' religious commitments and religious communities are known to influence their experiences of illness and their medical decisions. Physicians are also dynamic partners in the doctor-patient relationship, yet little is known about the religious characteristics of physicians or how physicians' religious commitments shape the clinical encounter.
Objective: To provide a baseline description of physicians' religious characteristics, and to compare physicians' characteristics with those of the general U.S. population.
Design/Participants: Mailed survey of a stratified random sample of 2,000 practicing U.S. physicians. Comparable U.S. population data are derived from the 1998 General Social Survey.
Measurements/Results: The response rate was 63%. Fifty-five percent of physicians say their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine. Compared with the general population, physicians are more likely to be affiliated with religions that are underrepresented in the United States, less likely to say they try to carry their religious beliefs over into all other dealings in life (58% vs 73%), twice as likely to consider themselves spiritual but not religious (20% vs 9%), and twice as likely to cope with major problems in life without relying on God (61% vs 29%).
Conclusions: Physicians' religious characteristics are diverse and they differ in many ways from those of the general population. Researchers, medical educators, and policy makers should further examine the ways in which physicians' religious commitments shape their clinical engagements.

In recent years, an expansive medical literature has considered how and to what extent patients' religious and spiritual characteristics influence their health.[1,2] Some questions addressed by this research remain unresolved. For example, there is still disagreement regarding whether religious beliefs or practices, or different levels of spirituality, confer some quantifiable health benefit.[3,4,5,6] Regarding other questions, there is consensus. For example, it is clear that patients' religious commitments and religious communities do influence medical decisions, assign meaning to the experiences of illness, and provide resources for coping with suffering.[5,7,8]

In the context of this consensus, professional attention to patients' religious and spiritual concerns is one part of a broader movement toward a more patient-centered,[9] culturally competent,[8,10,11] narrative,[12] and holistic[13] medicine. This movement emphasizes the notion that patients interact with the health care system from a specific language, culture, community, and tradition, all of which shape patients' decisions and experiences related to illness. Given our society's extensive ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity, it follows that physicians must be attentive to and respectful of the ways in which patients' fundamental values may conflict with a physician's deeply held convictions,[8,10,11,14] possibly in ways that seem foreign or irrational to the physician.[15,16]

While much attention has been given to patients' religious and other values, little attention has been given to the way in which physicians' particular cultures, communities, and values may influence the clinical encounter. The American Association of Medical Colleges has called medical educators to teach students how to "incorporate awareness of spirituality, and culture beliefs and practices, into the care of patients in a variety of clinical contexts ... [and to] recognize that their own spirituality, and cultural beliefs and practices, might affect the ways they relate to, and provide care to, patients."[17] Despite such aims, little empirical data have been available regarding physicians' religious characteristics, how such characteristics compare with those of the general population, or how physicians' religious commitments shape their clinical engagements.

What is known about physicians' religious characteristics comes primarily from studies that have been limited to family physicians,[18,19,20] women physicians,[21] and physicians from a few discrete medical centers.[22] These studies suggest that family physicians are comparable to the general population with regard to religious characteristics[20] and are generally more religious than physicians from other specialties.[21] Yet, the limited sampling frames of these prior studies make it difficult to generalize such findings to the broader physician population. The goal of this study was to provide a baseline description of physicians' religious characteristics, and to compare physicians' characteristics with those of the general U.S. population. To do this, we surveyed a national probability sample of physicians using multidimensional measures of religion and spirituality, and then compared physicians' responses with those obtained on the General Social Survey (GSS), a study of a national probability sample of U.S. households.


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