March 20, 2006
Your Doctor May Be More Religious Than You Think
Survey found 76 percent believe in God, and more than half say beliefs influence their practice
When the man arrived at the emergency room, it was clear to Dr. Dana King that he was having a heart attack -- and that he was terrified.
"I could see the look on his face," said King, a family physician and a professor of family medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
King took immediate medical steps to help the man. But he also did something a bit unexpected. "I took his hand and attempted to comfort him. I asked him, 'Are you a religious person?'" King said.
"He looked at me like he was looking at me for the first time," King recalled. "A wave of relief came over him. He could see that I was making a connection on a different level. We prayed together, right in the middle of the emergency room. It was a short prayer, but it was just a way to touch someone intimately."
The patient, in his late 40s, survived. King doesn't think it was just the prayer that saved the man's life. Without the life-saving medical treatment, he wouldn't have lived.
But King, a 49-year-old member of the American Academy of Family Physicians, thinks some prayer or a bit of spirituality can be a welcome addition to the tools available to medical practitioners. "I think it adds a different dimension to the patient-doctor relationship," he said.
King isn't alone among today's doctors, according to a first-of-its-kind survey led this year by University of Chicago researcher Dr. Farr Curlin, an assistant professor of internal medicine.
Curlin and his fellow researchers surveyed 1,260 practicing physicians in the United States. They found that 76 percent of the doctors believe in God, and 59 percent believe in some sort of afterlife. The researchers also found that 90 percent of the doctors attend religious services at least occasionally, compared to 81 percent of adults in the general population. And 55 percent said their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.
The findings surprised Curlin, who assumed patients would be more religious than their doctors. "Our study challenges that conventional wisdom," said Curlin, whose study was published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
Curlin's team also found that different medical specialists varied in their practice of and attitudes about religion. Family practice doctors and pediatricians were more likely to carry their beliefs into other aspects of their lives. Radiologists and psychiatrists were the least likely to do so.
Christian, Mormon and Buddhist physicians were the most likely to say their religious beliefs influence their practice of medicine, while Jewish and Hindu doctors were least likely.
"What this study does is beg some important questions," Curlin said, adding that he next wants to find out how physicians' beliefs affect their practice of medicine. That's a topic he is studying now.
"The most obvious areas we want to examine are those in which there are overt, moral controversies -- sexual and reproductive health, end-of-life care," Curlin said. He's curious, too, about whether religious beliefs affect the way a doctor might treat behavior disorders in children, for instance.
For now, Curlin said, patients should know their doctors may be more like them in terms of spirituality than they might think. And they might ask their doctors about it.
King said he sometimes gets criticism from colleagues for wearing his beliefs on his sleeve. "One of my students says, 'That is just fairy dust.'"
But King notes, gently, that prayers never replace good medical care, only supplement it. "I try to touch people on a spiritual level in addition to the medical."
To learn about how to talk with your doctor, visit the American Academy of Family Physicians.