ARTICLE: Religious beliefs of doctors can shape their interpretation of clinical data
April 17, 2007
Most Doctors See Religion as Beneficial, Study Says
By NICHOLAS BAKALAR, New york Times
Most physicians in the United States believe that religion and spirituality have a positive effect on patients’ health, according to a survey published last week, and that God at least occasionally intervenes on their behalf.
Researchers questioned 1,144 doctors about how religion influences health care, and found that their responses varied with their religious beliefs. Fewer than 10 percent of doctors interviewed had no religious affiliation. A little more than a third said their intrinsic religious faith was high, a similar number said they were not very religious, and the rest called themselves moderately devout. The paper appears in the April 9 issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine.
Over all, only 1 percent believed that religion has a negative effect on health, and 2 percent said it has no influence one way or the other. But 54 percent said God sometimes affects a patient’s health, and 33 percent said religion and spirituality help prevent specific medical events like heart attacks, infections and death.
Physicians with high levels of belief were more than seven times as likely as those with low levels to believe that religion is a large influence on health. While more than 90 percent of very religious doctors believed that religion and spirituality can often help patients cope with their problems, 38 percent of them nevertheless held that religious belief can sometimes lead to negative emotions.
“The most telling part of this outcome,” said Dr. Farr A. Curlin, the lead author and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, “is that it shows that what doctors bring to the data, whether religious or secular, seems to have as much to do with their interpretations of the data as the data itself.”
He and his co-authors noted that few topics in medicine cause more disagreement than the relationship between religion and health.
Dr. Jerome E. Groopman, a professor of medicine at Harvard who was not involved in the study, said he was surprised by how many doctors believe in divine intervention.
“The most striking finding is the perception that God is micromanaging clinical outcomes at the bedside,” said Dr. Groopman, the author of the new book “How Doctors Think” (Houghton Mifflin). He added that “this is one of the really great tensions” in Judaism.
“Maimonides,” he went on, “rails against magic and sorcery and the idea that you can expect miracles, which is really what this boils down to, that the natural course of the world is altered on a regular basis by God intervening. But there is a fundamentalist reading of the Bible where God does intervene in those ways.”
The authors were unable to explain why religious and nonreligious physicians differed so radically in their interpretations of the influence of spirituality in health care, but they suggest that religious doctors may be more likely to inquire about spiritual matters, and therefore more likely to report on evidence that less religious doctors do not seek or find.
They also suggest that patients may look for doctors who share their religious beliefs. Doctors who practice in the South, for example, are more likely to be religious and, unsurprisingly, more likely to report that their patients mention religious issues. It may also be that if patients talk more about what they believe is God’s intervention in their care, physicians are more likely to believe them.
At the same time, the researchers suggest that doctors with strong religious beliefs may interpret the same medical findings in different ways, with the most religious among them seeing an effect of spirituality where others see none.
According to background information in the article, it is well known that doctors’ judgments are influenced by factors other than scientific evidence. But this study, Dr. Farr said, demonstrates that the religious beliefs of doctors can strongly shape the ways in which they interpret scientific data and clinical evidence.
“This is why we have this ongoing debate,” he added. “There are these deep issues at stake.”
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company