Survey Shows That Physicians Are More Religious Than Expected

Aug 1 2005 - 9:01pm

Doctors and Religion

The first study of physician religious beliefs has found that 76 percent of doctors believe in God and 59 percent believe in some sort of afterlife. The survey, performed by researchers at the University of Chicago and published (early online) in the July 2005 issue of the Journal of General Internal Medicine, found that 90 percent of doctors in the United States attend religious services at least occasionally, compared to 81 percent of all adults. Fifty-five percent of doctors say their religious beliefs influence how they practice medicine.

These results were not anticipated. Religious belief tends to decrease as education and income levels increase, yet doctors are highly educated and, on average, well compensated. The finding also differs radically from 90 years of studies showing that only a minority of scientists (excluding physicians) believes in God or an afterlife.

"We did not think physicians were nearly this religious," said study author Farr Curlin, MD, instructor in the department of medicine and a member of the MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at the University of Chicago. "We suspect that people who combine an aptitude for science with an interest in religion and an affinity for public service are particularly attracted to medicine. The responsibility to care for those who are suffering, and the rewards of helping those in need, resonate throughout most religious traditions."

Although physicians are nearly as religious as the general population, their specific beliefs often differ from those of their patients. While more than 80 percent of patients describe themselves at Protestant or Catholic, only 60 percent of physicians come from either group.

Physicians are 26 times more likely to be Hindu than the overall U.S. population (5.3 percent of doctors vs. 0.2 percent of non-physicians). Doctors are seven times more likely to be Jewish (14.1 percent vs. 1.9 percent), six times more likely to be Buddhist (1.2 percent vs. 0.2 percent), and five times more likely to be Muslim (2.7 percent vs. 0.5 percent).

Although doctors are more likely than the general population to attend religious services, they are less willing to "apply their religious beliefs to other areas of life," the researchers found. Sixty-one percent of doctors say they "try to make sense" of a difficult situation and "decide what to do without relying on God," versus only 29 percent of the general population.

"We have paid a good deal of attention to the religious beliefs of patients and how their faith influences medical decisions," Curlin said, "but until now no one has looked in the same way at physicians, the other half of every doctor-patient relationship. These findings lead us to further wonder how doctors' faiths shape their clinical encounters."



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