I've been traveling recently. This is the kind of thing I do on airplanes....
I've been looking at the recent article from the Archives of Internal Medicine, titled, "Physicians' Observations and Interpretations of the Influence of Religion and Spirituality on Health” (Arch Intern Med. 2007;167:649-654; April 9, 2007. You can find the abstract here. Full text requires a subscription, but your local reference librarian should be able to get you a copy.) It shouldn't surprise anyone that as a chaplain I would find it interesting.
Some of its more interesting conclusions have been reported elsewhere. However, let me highlight a few. First,98% of responding physicians believed that the experience of illness increases patients' awareness and focus ("sometimes/often/always") on religion/spirituality (abbreviated in the article as "R/S"); and 76% say patients have mentioned R/S issues ("sometimes/often/always"). 91% believe R/S has some influence on patients' health ("Some/much/very much"); and 85% believe that influence is positive. While most believe R/S does not provide protection from what the study calls "'hard' medical outcomes like heart attack, etc." (61% "rarely/never"), 96% believe R/S gives patients a positive, hopeful state of mind; and 54% believe "God or another supernatural being intervenes...."
The researchers also included questions to measure religiosity. It will come as no surprise that doctors who were themselves more religious were more likely to see R/S as beneficial to patients. They also sorted responses by region. Again, it is not a surprise that physicians in the South and Midwest were marginally more religious than in the Northeast or West, and more likely to see R/S as beneficial
Now, there were several other results that interested me. First, the response rate was 63% (1144 of 1820 eligible physicians). Even using several invitations as they did, that's quite a high response, and even more so when you consider the questionnaire was 12 pages. True, they were also offered $20 to participate, but the high rate still suggests that as a group physicians thought this an important topic. Also interesting is the fact that those with a poor opinion of R/S responded early; so, even those who thought R/S might be harmful thought it important to respond to the questions.
More troubling, at least for me, was the finding that 55% have noted patients receiving emotional or practical help from the patients' religious communities. Now, for the study that's positive - at least it's a majority. However, from my perspective as a priest and chaplain that's a disappointing number. Perhaps religious communities haven't been as visible as they might have been. Perhaps this is a detail patients didn't discuss with the physicians, or that physicians didn't ask about; but that seems unlikely in light of how many did have patients mention religious/spiritual issues. It seems more likely that physicians, even those who are religious themselves, have not seen religious support at the bedside as frequently as we might like. Too, this was a survey of physicians. We can only hope that more than 55% of patients would say they receive support. The thought that 45% would say they hadn't received support from their faith communities is troubling.
Those concerns notwithstanding, this is an interesting study. Often when spiritual care of patients is discussed, there is come concern that physician will be skeptical, if not outright hostile. This study suggests that doctors appreciate the importance of spiritual concerns to patients and to their wholeness, regardless of lack of "hard" benefits. I have long found most doctors to be respectful of my work. It's nice to know that their attitude is the rule, and not the exception.