Physicians are more religious than was previously thought, according to a study published in the July issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine.
While 81% of all adults report attending religious services at least occasionally, 90% of doctors do, according to the survey, and 55% reported that their religious beliefs affect their practice of medicine.
In addition, physicians were similar to the general population in the percentage having a religious affiliation, but physicians were more likely to belong to religions that are underrepresented in the general US population, the survey found.
Medicine has paid considerable attention to the ways in which patients' religious beliefs affect their health, but little attention has been paid to the ways in which physicians' cultures, communities, and values affect patients' health care, wrote the authors, led by Farr A. Curlin, MD, Assistant Professor in the Section of General Internal Medicine at the University of Chicago.
“In most of the accounts of this reality, the physician is generally treated as a neutral term in that equation,” Dr. Curlin said.
The little that is known about physicians' religious characteristics comes from studies that have been limited to family physicians, female physicians, and physicians from a few discrete medical centers, the authors wrote.
These studies have found that the religious characteristics of family physicians are similar to those of the general population, and that family physicians are more religious than physicians from other specialties.
The researchers used a survey mailed to a stratified random sample of 2,000 practicing physicians aged 65 or younger, chosen from the American Medical Association Physician Masterfile, a database intended to include all US physicians. The US population data came from the 1998 General Social Survey.
Of those sent the survey, 63% responded. Physicians were less likely to say their religious beliefs affected other aspects of their lives (58% vs 73% in the general population). In addition, physicians were twice as likely to consider themselves as spiritual but not religious (20% vs 9% in the general population) and twice as likely to deal with major life issues by trying to “'make sense of the situation and decide what to do without relying on God'” (61% vs 29% in the general population).
While more than 80% of people in the general population describe themselves as Protestant or Catholic, only 60% of physicians do, the survey found. When compared with the general population, physicians were 26 times more likely to be Hindu (5.3% vs 0.2%), seven times more likely to be Jewish (14.1% vs 1.9%), six times more likely to be Buddhist (1.2% vs 0.2%), and five times more likely to be Muslim (2.7% vs 0.5%).
Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim physicians were about half as likely as Christian physicians to say their religious beliefs affected other areas of their life, the study found. In addition, family physicians and pediatricians were generally more religious than physicians in other specialties, and psychiatrists were the least religious, echoing the findings of previous studies.
“The study sort of begs really important questions,” Dr. Curlin said. “It just raises questions of how does this influence physician care, decisions made in the clinical encounter, and patient experience.”