August 10, 2005

Religion Can Trump Medical Advice, Docs Say

NEW YORK -- Many US doctors believe that the religious convictions of their patients should outweigh their own professional advice when it comes to making certain medical decisions. When the patient is a child, however, a large majority of doctors say that they, and not the child's guardian, should have the final say, regardless of the guardian's religious beliefs.

These findings and others come from a survey of 794 physicians nationwide who answered various questions about religion and its effect on healthcare in the United States in an August poll.

Overall, 23 percent of physicians said that religion has a negative effect on healthcare in the United States, 30 percent said it has a negligible effect, and 47 percent said that religion has a positive effect on healthcare.

When asked how religion most affects healthcare, more than two-thirds of respondents said it's through patients' personal decisions, and a quarter of the group said it affects healthcare through political action. Only a few - seven percent -- said that religion most affected healthcare through its influence on physicians.

"Something's happening in the power relationship between physicians and patients," according to Dr. Arthur J. Kover, a management fellow at Yale University's School of Management and a consultant with HCD Research, the New Jersey-based market research company that conducted the poll.

"Until recently the power was in the hands of physicians... (but) the balance of power has been shifting," he told Reuters Health.

The reasons for this shift may be multifaceted but Kover, also a sociologist, said it is partly due to direct-to-consumer drug advertising and consumers' religious beliefs. He says both are helping to move some of the power away from doctors and into the hands of consumers.

More than half (57 percent) of the physicians surveyed said that a patient's religious reason for a medical course of action should trump a doctor's treatment advice. In contrast, the other 43 percent said it should not.

When it comes to making healthcare decisions for children, however, nearly 84 percent of doctors agreed that a physician's medical decision should not be overridden by the religious beliefs of a child's guardian.

The respondents were almost evenly divided about whether saving a person's life justifies violating their religious beliefs, with 51 percent saying that saving a person's life does not justify that religious violation.

Fifty-five percent of physicians surveyed said they were not concerned about the influence of religion on healthcare in this country, however. This may be explained by the finding that over two-thirds of doctors said a patient's religious beliefs "infrequently" or "rarely, perhaps never" interfered with his or her health, while 30 percent of doctors said that a patient's religious beliefs often or occasionally interfered.

In other findings, when asked which particular religion has the most beneficial or harmful effect on healthcare, more than 50 percent of physicians said that "no religion has a more beneficial effect than any other" and slightly more than 25 percent said "no religion has a more harmful effect than any other."