Background: Physicians and researchers have recently paid increased attention to prayer in physician-patient interactions. Research focuses more on attitudinal questions about whether physicians and/or patients think prayer is relevant than on actual data about when and how prayer comes up in the clinic and how physicians respond. We focus on pediatric physicians to investigate: 1) how prayer enters clinical contexts and 2) how physicians respond.
Methods: We examined in-depth interviews with 30 academic pediatricians and pediatric oncologists. All of these physicians were employed by the most highly ranked hospitals according to US News and World Report.
Results: In close to 100% of cases when the subject of prayer came up in clinical contexts, it was patients and families who raised it. Patients and families mostly talked about prayer in response to a seriously ill or dying child. When it was raised, pediatric physicians responded to prayer by participating; accommodating but not participating; reframing; and directing families to other resources.
Conclusions: Physicians wanted to respect patients and families around the topic of prayer. They negotiated between patient/family requests, the specific situation, and their own comfort levels to respond in one of four ways. Their four responses allowed researchers to generate hypotheses about the independent variables that influence how pediatric physicians respond to prayer. Asking how prayer actually came up in clinical situations rather than how patients and/or physicians thought it should be raised, better informs ongoing conversations about the significance of prayer in physician-patient interactions.