Context: Controversy exists regarding whether and how physicians should address religion/spirituality (R/S) with patients.
Objective: This study examines the relationship between physicians’ religious characteristics and their attitudes and self-reported behaviors regarding R/S in the clinical encounter.
Methods: A cross-sectional mailed survey of a stratified random sample of 2000 practicing U.S. physicians from all specialties. Main criterion variables were self-reported practices of R/S inquiry, dialogue regarding R/S issues, and prayer with patients. Main predictor variables were intrinsic religiosity, spirituality, and religious affiliation.
Results: Response rate was 63%. Almost all physicians (91%) say it is appropriate to discuss R/S issues if the patient brings them up, and 73% say that when R/S issues comes up they often or always encourage patients’ own R/S beliefs and practices. Doctors are more divided about when it is appropriate for physicians to inquire regarding R/S (45% believe it is usually or always inappropriate), talk about their own religious beliefs or experiences (14% say never, 43% say only when the patient asks), and pray with patients (17% say never, 53% say only when the patient asks). Physicians who identify themselves as more religious and more spiritual, particularly those who are Protestants, are significantly more likely to endorse and report each of the different ways of addressing R/S in the clinical encounter.
Conclusions: Differences in physicians’ religious and spiritual characteristics are associated with differing attitudes and behaviors regarding R/S in the clinical encounter. Discussions of the appropriateness of addressing R/S matters in the clinical encounter will need to grapple with these deeply rooted differences among physicians.